One of the most easily recognized New Year’s Eve tropes is that of an old man, often with wings, carrying an hourglass and a scythe. Commonly referred to as Father Time, this ancient persona whose roots lie in the cultures of Greece and Rome is an amalgam of various symbols associated with the harvest, death, and eternity. To the Greeks he was Cronos, and his sickle was initially associated with the harvest, and only later did this reaper become grim. For the Romans he was Saturn: the god not only of the harvest, but of a variety of disparate ideas that can be derived from the cycle of agriculture – sowing, reaping, plenty, wealth, celebrating, revelry, melancholy, death, immortality.
So it is no surprise that the merriment that comes with New Year’s Eve has its roots in the ancient Roman celebration of Saturnalia. But neither is it a surprise that people can experience wide swings of mood on such an occasion. To look back on a year is to see in the rearview mirror both the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, the pleasure and the pain of the last twelve months. It seems fitting that many of depictions of Father Time have him leaning on a crutch to get him over the finish line.
But using the last day of December as the finish line appears at first glance to be as arbitrary as choosing 100 meters to determine who the fastest human is. And yet, the Romans saw in the calendar something of the cosmos, and their celebrations – as wild as they could be – included the imagery of the victory of light over darkness, and the symbolic relationship between light and knowledge, wisdom and contemplation.
I got a glimpse of this last December 29th as the wedding reception of my daughter and her newly minted husband was winding down. The old folks had gone home, the young folks were on the dance floor, and I sat in the contemplative glow of the moment, but not just the moment – it seemed like all of eternity. On either side of me were two of my greatest friends, Tom Mahoney ’78 and Jim Brennan ’85.
We sat and smiled as we watched our children laughing and singing and dancing. We talked of the past, but we were also seeing a glimpse of the future. There was a contemplative glow that was palpable, and a peacefulness in the many silent moments between us that felt like the personification of comfort and joy.
Comfort and joy – two words that can’t be separated in our minds from the feast that not only replaced Saturnalia, but transformed the world beyond what any ancient Greek or Roman philosopher could have imagined. The old man Saturn had given way to the Baby in the manger, and the world would never be the same.
The Nativity retains many of the joyous celebrations that were associated with the ancient Roman festival, including the tradition among England’s upper class to switch places with their servants. But one important Christian innovation was the focus given to the mother of the celebratory deity. The inclusion of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, in the Church calendar on New Year’s Day pays tribute to the woman whose “yes” began the transformation of the cosmos.
In Mary we have the ultimate symbol of the victory of light over darkness, the beauty of new life in an old world, and the essence of contemplative peace.
So in the passing from one year to the next, as we shift our gaze from Father Time to the Madonna and Child, may we enter 2020 with great hope borne out of the love bestowed upon us by the Mother of God who is the mother of us all.
Happy New Year!