As a year ends, we often look back on what we have experienced. That review may bring to mind what we have accomplished and good memories. It may also include regrets, things undone, and things we wish we could forget.
In a poem from 1784, "New Year’s Verses" by Philip Freneau, he blesses whoever came up with the idea of a year.
Blest be the man who early prov’d
And first contriv’d to make it clear
That Time upon a dial mov’d,
And trac’d that circle call’d a year;
I'm not sure if all of us would bless that calendar maker. Some might instead curse.
December is filled with holidays that mark the Winter Solstice and the end of the year. Though some of us in the North might be sad to see winter arrive, since ancient times both solstices were viewed as a celebration. Starting on the winter solstice, the days get longer moving to the vernal equinox and the start of spring.
From the Scandinavia Yule, to Hanukkah, to a bonfire on Mount Fuji and the Hopi tradition of Soyal with its Sun Chief, the day of the "sun's rebirth” is often marked with fire and light.
For this month's writing prompt, we look at "Burning the Old Year" by Naomi Shihab Nye (from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems) which seems to follow these fire traditions. In her short poem, "Letters swallow themselves in seconds" and notes "sizzle like moth wings" in a "swirling flame of days."
Read the full poem. Is Nye is actually burning something or is this a metaphor using the idea of burning? What does she mean when she says, "I begin again with the smallest numbers?" Why is it that "only the things I didn’t do" are what will finally "crackle after the blazing dies?" (If you have thoughts on this poem, please post a comment below.)
The end-of-year celebration that seems closest to Nye's poem is from England. The modern-day (and possibly short-lived) “Burning of the Clocks” festival in the seaside town of Brighton takes fire as a necessity for lighting the dark days of winter. People wear clock costumes and carry paper lanterns to the beach to put in a bonfire. Do they symbolize wishes, hopes, fears, or Time itself?
In ancient cultures, marking time for farmers planting crops and tending animals was important and treated at times as religious. Winter was dangerous and the return of light and warmth was critical to their survival. The Neolithic who constructed Stonehenge did so to monitor movements of the sun and seasons and it probably had religious uses too. At the winter solstice, where the tallest trilithon at the monument once stood is where the sun would have set between in its narrow gap.
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