by Barbara H. Fiese, PhD

With New Year’s Eve just a few days away, what plans have you made? I used to put a lot of pressure on myself to make December 31 the best night of the year, and more often than not this led to disappointment in the face of all those high expectations. I look at it differently now. New Year’s Eve is not just another night, nor does it have to be a great big party… it’s an ending and a new beginning and a ritual in its own right, and I like to make it meaningful and memorable.
I spoke with Barbara Fiese, PhD, a clinical and developmental psychologist and author of Family Routines and Rituals, who affirmed that it can be a good thing to choose a symbolic ritual of your own to consciously mark the transition to the new year as a way to both clear the mind and move forward.
Many people like to choose rituals that are cultural in nature. “If you practice a ritual that’s been passed down through family generations, it connects you to your ancestors and preserves your identity for the future,” Dr. Fiese points out. Other considerations may include whether you want to mark the end of a year that was particularly difficult… or joyous… or (as I so often find) both. You may want to focus on being “in the moment” of transition from old to new… or it may be that you want to celebrate the possibilities that lie ahead, whether you have specific hopes and dreams for the new year or just want it to be wonderful in its own, yet-to-be-revealed way.
There are rituals for all these purposes, and more. If you’re looking for a New Year’s ritual to call your own, here are a few to consider:
• In the Thai culture, water represents both cleansing and renewal, and the New Year is celebrated with rituals of splashing water. Water is tossed out of doors or windows (checking first for passers-by!) or into public fountains, and, more personal, young people tenderly pour scented water over the shoulders of their elders as a sign of respect and an act of blessing.
• In Japan, people spend the last day of the old year cleaning their homes to welcome the New Year’s harvest god. Clearing away clutter and creating a clean, peaceful environment can be a tangible and meaningful way to symbolize the clearing out of old energy from the current year in order to create a welcoming space for new, positive events and opportunities to move into your life.
• A Native American tradition can easily be adapted even to urban environments. Go to a park, hiking trail, your garden or some other place in nature that’s significant to you. Dig a small hole in the ground, and place your regrets, fears or worries (represented by a slip of paper on which you have written them, a photograph or some other symbol) from the past year into the hole. Replace the dirt and cover the spot with leaves or stones so that the earth can absorb the past and leave you unburdened for the coming year.
• Physically releasing something tangible into the world — such as balloons, butterflies, doves or bubbles — can represent the release of the past. An easy, elegant and environmentally correct way to do this is by blowing bubbles — perhaps even twice: First at sunrise, to release regrets, worries or cares… then at dusk to release your hopes, consciously sending out a wish to the universe each time you blow a new set of bubbles.
• The Jewish New Year (which occurs in the autumn) is marked by atoning for the transgressions of the past year in order to enter the new one spiritually cleansed. You can adapt this as an end-of-year ritual by making a list of all the hurts, injustices and regrets you faced or created during 2009. Contemplate each as you write them down, bringing them to mind for one last review. Next, build a fire in a fireplace (indoors or outdoors) and burn the list. Take the ashes outside, and scatter them or sprinkle them into the wind or over moving water (a brook or the beach) to carry them away.
• Another ritual of repentance is part of the annual New Year celebration in Buddhist temples in Japan, where bells are rung 108 times in order to dispel the 108 worldly desires. Consider engaging in a personal bell-ringing ceremony, with each toll representing something you wish to let go of or something you hope to call into your life in the months ahead.
• Plant seeds in an indoor pot, each seed representing a particular hope or desire that you can bring into being. Nurturing the plant as it pushes through the earth and grows toward the sun can be symbolic of your dreams coming to fruition.
• In many parts of South America, people take a traditional walk around the block carrying a suitcase (try a backpack if you find a suitcase awkward or uncomfortable) each New Year’s Eve, which is said to ensure that your dream journey will manifest.
• Some churches and communities sponsor labyrinth walks, which are a form of moving meditation that allows the walker to reflect on life while moving slowly and mindfully, one step at a time, along a prescribed path. This can represent moving away from the past and toward the future. The World-Wide Labyrinth Locator’s site at can help you find a labyrinth near you.
Rituals can be as simple as a moment of silence, a letter to yourself or someone else, or even a prayer, religious or otherwise. Or you may prefer to go all out, planning something elaborate, extravagant and even (if you can afford it), expensive such as a trip to a special place. A New Year’s ritual can be solitary or a celebration with your partner, family and friends, or — as is done in many cities around the world — at a party where everyone in the community is welcome. It’s the deliberation and focus on what matters to you that is most important and that ultimately gives your choice meaning, whether you do it only this year or every year going forward from now on.


Barbara H. Fiese, PhD, is the Pampered Chef, Ltd., endowed chair in family resiliency and professor of human development and resiliency studies and director of the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She previously served as chair of the department of psychology at Syracuse University. She is a clinical and developmental psychologist whose research interests focus on family factors that promote health and wellbeing in children. Her most recent book is Family Routines and Rituals ( Yale University Press).