Around the world, the sentiment is the same even though there are many different ways to convey the message: from the Dutch “Gelukkig Nieuwjaar” to the Greek “Kali Chronia,” from the Spanish “Feliz año Nuevo” to the Swahili “Mwaka Mzuri” or the Urdu “Naya Saal Mubarik,” the citizens of the world wish for a “Happy New Year!” Regardless the time zone, the stroke of midnight ushers in a celebration that encircles the globe. Fireworks fill the skies with explosive colors carrying hopes and dreams for the coming New Year. A new year brings the chance of fresh possibility and promise, of goals and aspirations, and of renewal and growth. It is the chance to start again and, of course, it is hoped that the year will be filled with happiness.
Despite the revelry and festive mood, the advent of each New Year will inevitably usher in its share of sorrow and sadness. Each year brings its share of natural disasters or calamity. Each year brings some nations closer to war or perpetuates ongoing conflict. For some, economic fortunes will be lost. And for others, the New Year will bring personal loss or suffering. While no one likes to think of these things, they too will come to surprise the unsuspecting.
So what is it that we wish for, and what is it that we want when we say, “Happy New Year”? Far deeper than a simple saying, these words house cherished imaginations of possibility and promise. And those cherished imaginations vary depending on the way in which one defines happiness. Some define happiness as a year in which everything goes their way. Others hope for simpler pleasures, and still others simply hope it will be a year of stepping up to the plate, finding a job, or surviving another day despite the aching hunger or aching loneliness.
Like most, my own thoughts for the substance of a happy New Year tend to revolve around achieving certain goals, seeing dreams fulfilled, or feeling deeply connected to a sense of purpose. One of my yearly rituals is to go through the previous year’s calendar to transfer birthdays, anniversaries and other recurring events into my new calendar. As I did so this year, I reviewed the events of the previous year. While this past year was filled with joys and wonderful celebrations, there were losses that filled the pages as well. I wondered aloud what it will mean for me to have a ‘happy New Year’ and what it will mean for others?
There is nothing wrong with the sentiment, of course. It is a desire for good things, hoping for the best, and working towards making the year a “happy” one, not only for myself but also for others. But still I am left feeling that I want more than happiness, especially since its very nature is fleeting and often dependent on circumstances or events over which I have little control. Am I simply hoping that everything goes my way when I want happiness? Is wanting a happy New Year simply another wish for “my will to be done”?
There is a liturgical refrain that is said in many different church traditions; the pastor says, “The Lord be with you.” And the people answer, “And also with you.” It struck me as I joined in the chorus of voices singing this refrain that a key to happiness for many persons regardless of creed or faith tradition is a sense that somehow they are noticed and that they matter. There is the hope that if there is a God, God notices and cares. Especially in the most difficult circumstances, there is the need of assurance and of God’s presence with us, the desire of divine nearness throughout all the events of the year. For in each New Year there are a great many things that conspire against belief in God’s presence, and a creeping atheism can overtake many a person of faith.
Given that each New Year will undoubtedly bring happiness and also hold its share of heartache and sorrow, wishing for the presence of God to be made manifest seems a necessary complement to the ubiquitous, yet often generic, wish for happiness. Happy is the year—regardless of what may come or what the year may hold—in which the presence of Emmanuel, God with us, is felt.
The Lord be with you!
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.