If you haven’t seen The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, I highly recommend it. It’s an Amazon-only show, and it follows Midge Maisel - a Jewish woman whose husband leaves her, so naturally she goes into stand-up comedy. There’s a lot of adult language, and the first and last episodes of the first season include some nudity, but if you can get past that you’ll find excellent characters and well crafted stories. It’s set in the 1950’s, it depicts the stigma surrounding divorced women (not so much men), it shows the oppression of women in the 50s, and each episode delivers with hilarious jokes. Midge is an in-between kind of woman; there are ways she fits in her time period, like how she uses a tape measure to record the dimensions of her body every day for a decade. But she’s also beyond her time period in a number of ways; she’s bold and crass, she’s strong minded, and she’s aware of the ridiculousness of her mother and father telling her that her husband leaving her is her own fault, and she needs to go after him.
After her husband leaves her, Midge has to move back in with her parents, along with her two children. While her parents offer financial support, it comes with rules, like having a curfew and being assigned chores. So being the woman she is, Midge decides to get a job so that she can have money with no strings attached and feel somewhat like a real adult person, since her parents don’t know how to treat her like one. Midge decides to work at a department store at the makeup counter and a group of coworker-friends invite her to a series of parties. She becomes the center of attention, telling jokes and running bits. There’s one joke in particular that Midge makes about Christmas, Hanukkah, and socks:
Midge: Me, personally, I was never great at gift-giving. Maybe it’s because I never got to celebrate Christmas. I got Hanukkah. Doesn’t exactly prepare you the same way. For Christmas, a gentile would get a bike as a reminder that their parents love them. For Hanukkah, we would get socks as a reminder that we were persecuted.
Midge makes evident the comical and stark distinction between Jewish and goyish (gentile, non-Jewish) ways of celebrating, and I think that distinction is evident in how the New Year is celebrated too. The Jewish New Year is called Rosh Hashanah, and is followed up by Yom Kippur. These days focus on judgment, atonement, and the importance of repentance in regards to becoming righteous. Switching over to the goyish New Year, however, you find something vastly different. You find fireworks and alcohol, bright lights and a glittery ball countdown, crazy glasses and flashy parties. You shake off whatever went wrong in the previous year and create a bunch of resolutions for the new one that will most likely last a week or two and then die.
If you’re Catholic you might chuckle at Midge’s characterization of Christmas. Christmas is about goodwill and generosity because God has given literally His entire self to humanity and so we should probably give something to the ones we love. But what about a Catholic New Year? What does that look like? Well technically the Catholic New Year starts with Advent, the beginning of the liturgical year, and leads into Christmas. Advent is a penitential season that focuses on repentance and preparation for the coming of the Savior. So at first glance, it seems like a Catholic New Year is closest to a Jewish one, and I suppose that means we should reject all the loud partying and excitement that’s found in the secular way of celebrating the New Year. Perhaps Catholics should start handing out socks too.
I really don’t think that gives us the full Catholic picture though. In the third week of Advent we celebrate Gaudete Sunday; that’s the Sunday when the priest wears pink (I know, I know, technically it’s rose). On this Sunday we take a moment in the midst of our repentance to remember why we’re repenting - we are awaiting something, someone, and we are awaiting them with great joy. That someone is Christ, God made man, and when He comes into our world He makes all things new. Christ Himself is something entirely new; never before has God entered into human history and the salvation story by becoming incarnate as a human being. The world has never seen someone who is fully God and fully human. Yet at Christmas we rejoice in this tiny child who is “I am who am”, and once He comes into our world, nothing is the same ever again. Everything that came before Christ becomes new despite its ancientness, and everything that comes after Him is shaped and formed by His having been here.
The notion of a new year, of anything being made new, is not just a nice sounding sentence to toss out around the holidays. For a Catholic, celebrating a new year is about participating in the newness of Christ. So yes, we have to prepare ourselves through penance and prayer, and that’s why we have Advent. But even more so we have to feast, to celebrate, to rejoice that God’s love and grace were so deep and so rich that He changed everything by becoming one of us. It isn’t the excitement or even the partying of the secular New Year that’s the problem - let’s be honest, Catholics love a good party - it’s that the secular New Year often trivializes what it means for something to be new. In our culture, which is sometimes called a “throw-away culture” and is often shaped by capitalism and consumerism, we think of new things as being necessary because they are better than the old. Our items don’t even have to be broken or damaged for us to throw them away and get a new one, they just have to be older and therefore lesser than the newest model. I think, though, that even secular culture recognizes this as a problem, and so we’ve started to see things like the rise of “vintage” becoming a cool trend.
Newness through the lens of Christ is completely different. Christ doesn’t throw away the things or the people He finds; He keeps them and heals them. With people in particular, newness is about being made whole. Christ alters you and He does so in such a way that you end up more fully yourself than you were before or would have been without Him. A Catholic New Year, then, is one that is celebrates the chance for life to be fresh and full of possibility. We hope in a new year, in a new beginning, because we believe that goodness and love for ourselves and others is worth trying for, no matter how many times we may have to try again. The kind of love that is willing to keep going and keep trying, that is willing to begin again as many times as it may take, is the same love that God has shown to us. To celebrate a Catholic New Year is to celebrate all the times God has shown us this love, and to look for times where we can love in that same way.
“We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” (T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”, Four Quartets)