On the Sunday closest to January 1st, many Unitarian Universalist congregations find creative ways to celebrate or mark the beginning of a new year. Themes can include reflection upon the year that has just passed; letting go of regrets and pain; hope for the promise of the year to come; resolutions to change; the passage of time; hope; expectation; and dreaming of a creating a better tomorrow.
Following are a handful of glimpses into how our UU congregations find new ways to honor the New Year:
- The most widespread UU tradition is a Fire Communion, sometimes known as a “burning bowl” ceremony, in which people write, on scraps of paper, phrases that represent the year behind them and bring the paper forward to burn it in (clearly, the fire’s container is carefully planned, and there are fire extinguishers nearby). For a more dramatic ritual, some congregations use flash paper — available at magic stores — which burns extremely bright and quickly, leaving no residue.
- As an alternative ritual to the Fire Communion, many UU congregations place a large bowl of water on their altar, and people write words or phrases about the past year on pieces of dissolving paper — such as quilting fabric. When they bring their paper forward to submerge it in water, the ritual represents letting go of what people wish to leave behind them.
- In conjunction with dissolving paper in a bowl of water, Rev. Laura Bogle reports that at Foothills UU Congregation in Maryville TN, parishioners also use fabric markers to write or draw their intention for the new year on a large white table cloth (a bedsheet works, too). Each year the congregation adds more words to the same cloth, layering past years’ intentions over the years, which provides an opportunity to be reminded of what they collectively intended the years before.
- In congregations like the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, the first Sunday after New Year’s Day is a “requiem” service, in which the congregation enjoys and celebrates the works of those who have died in the previous year (not in the congregation, but rather the scientists, poets, artists, and musicians in the general population). Rev. Nathan Ryan explains that curating this list is a year-long enterprise, and that it can be surprisingly meaningful to lift up those who have contributed to the world in surprising ways.
- Some UU congregations feature a “decades service” near the New Year, in which a person from ech decade of life offers a brief (2 minute) reflection to a question—such as the one posed by Mary Oliver in her poem “The Summer Day:” What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
- At Palomar UU Fellowship in Vista, CA, Rev. Dr. Beth Johnson leads a guided meditation during worship, inviting the congregation to open to what they would like to bring in for the coming year. She then passes around a basket of Angel Cards with a single word on them. Many parishioners love it, and tuck the card in their name tag, and report throughout the year about how they “worked with their word” throughout the year.
- Rev. Elea Kemler, at First Parish Church of Groton (MA), holds a New Year service not in the sanctuary, but in their large coffee hour room. After lighting a chalice and holding a very simple worship service that includes “The Work of Christmas” by Howard Thurman (#615 in Singing the Living Tradition), the congregation takes part in the all-ages activity of making about 200 bag lunches for local shelters, assembly line style. There’s also a card-making table, so that a handmade card and note can be put in each lunch. People then deliver the boxes of lunches and shelters are usually pretty glad to have one meal taken care of during a week that is hard to cover. After lunches are made, the congregation shares coffee and leftover Christmas cookies.
- Rev. Shari Woodbury spent the fall collecting milkweed pods (filled with silky fluff) and developed a Meditation on the Turn of the Year, in which milkweed will evoke the act of letting things go, and seeds of the new. She’ll pass out milkweed pods during worship, and invite people at the conclusion of the service to step outside and release their regrets and send out their intentions for the new year by releasing feathery milkweed from their pods into the wind.
- At UU Church West (Brookfield, WI), Rev. Suzelle Lynch has encouraged improv services at the New Year. One year’s service (“How to Have a Jazzy New Year”) featured a jazz pianist, and another year’s centered around a participatory improv story where folks from the congregation pulled props and prompts at various points as worship leaders acted out the story. There was also a singer-songwriter, who created a new song verse to recap each chapter; the congregation sang a chorus before the story continued.