FROM NARA, JAPAN — New Year's Day is the hardest holiday to make sense of precisely because it's the easiest one to sleep through; as the most arbitrary of designations -- New Year's falls on different days in Nepal or Ethiopia or China or California -- it asks us, even compels us, to find its meaning within ourselves. Hanukkah, Christmas, Ramadan, Divali: They all follow a larger calendar and come with their own rites and duties. But what to do with a day that, in our Western culture at least, involves mostly snoozing through the bowl games and resolving to remember the resolutions that you know you'll forget by next Tuesday?
My answer is as arbitrary as anyone else's, but it is to see what "new" and "year's" might really mean, by taking myself off to see the grandfather cultures of the world. In Japan, where I live -- old enough to think carefully about new beginnings -- chic girls in kimonos, with stylish stoles around their necks, stream through the orange torii gates of a Shinto shrine soon after a bronze bell tolls in the new year, swains in rock-star suits beside them, to observe the ceremonial first sunrise and to gather sacred fire and pure water from the holy place with which to cook an auspicious first meal. To many in the Westernized nation, though, one of the most popular shrines to visit on New Year's Day is Tokyo Disneyland, where priestly duties may be performed by Mickey and Goofy.
Yet the most crucial rite of what is the most important day of the year in Japan -- even if you begin it in Tomorrowland -- is to go pay your respects to Grandma and root your newness in the old. Like most traditional cultures in the world, Japan knows that "new" is not always the same as "improved" and that "old" does not quite translate as "outdated."
I am only a would-be Japanese, and more of a global being, so I don't have any grandparents nearby or a local shrine to which I can claim full allegiance. Thus, last New Year's found me visiting the global village's elders in Jerusalem, where ancient passions sob and flare through the thin stone passageways, reminding us that constant turmoil is not the same as change. The beauty of the Old City there is that its spiritual fervor hasn't diminished in 2,000 years or more; everyone has an acutely keen sense of what he or she believes in. The sorrow of the Old City is that its personal enmities do not seem to have abated much either; everyone knows just whom he or she doesn't trust.
A new year is a time to reflect on change and to see what endures beyond the flash and grab of the moment. At the turn of the millennium, therefore, I emptied my savings account to take my mother to Easter Island, where the 21st century looked to be mostly a matter of tall stone statues and ancestral taboos. Four years earlier, I spent New Year's Eve in Port-au-Prince, seeing the modern globe in miniature: All night long, the Creole elite danced the evening away in soigne French restaurants, stunning in that season's Dior and backless dresses. When the light came up on the new year, nearly everyone else had to awaken to a country with few schools or roads or hospitals or hopes.
Wherever I am, whether Egypt or Ethiopia, I observe my own makeshift rites on New Year's Day, as if superstition might be the first step toward sacrament. I wake up early and compile lists of the cultural highlights of the year just past. Then I begin writing out a swelling catalog of all the moments that moved and astonished me, annual proof that even the emptiest-seeming year is rich.
I take care, as my Japanese neighbors do, over my first thought, my first sentence, my first meal; the day itself is for me like the folded white paper that the Japanese collect from shrines outlining their future for the year to come. When, four years ago, New Year's Day found me barreling down a narrow mountain road at 12,000 feet in southern Bolivia and then bouncing and banging around as my taxi rolled over and over -- the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel, a victim of New Year's Eve -- I had the distinct impression that the year that followed might not be entirely happy. (I survived with just a scar, though the driver and the only other passenger ended up in the hospital.)
But my most haunting New Year's in recent times -- walking through the Cambodian jungle at four in the morning, surrounded by Khmer Rouge ghosts and the towers of Angkor -- taught me that the calendar's arbitrary markings are really just asking you how much you define yourself by what's shifting or what's still.
This year, as it happens, I plan to mark the new year in California, wondering how much our fresh young president will draw on the ancestral wisdom of Kansas and Kenya to guide him -- and us -- into a new century. You don't have to travel far, my Japanese neighbors remind me, to turn a new page in your life. The only important thing on New Year's -- I should have reminded my Bolivian taxi driver -- is to wake up.