In the Jewish tradition, the one I grew with, new year practices take almost two weeks to complete. The start is the two days of Rosh Hashana that mark the beginning of the Jewish year. Then comes the "ten days of awe", ten days of repentance when a person needs to go over his deeds in the year just ending and find ways to make amends. The culmination is Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and prayer and hoping that forgiveness will be granted by the end of the day.
An ongoing joke is that all Jewish holidays are about food. There is, indeed, a lot of cooking and eating that goes along with this time of the year (early September), but what I remember most are the long hours in the synagogue, forced to be quiet, and the feeling that one gets when judged by the authorities, and that even if a "crime" was not committed he or she is already found guilty.
Over the years, I stopped practicing most of the customs, still, when September rolls in I feel that urge to go over my performance in the year ending and clean up my act.
I was always attracted to the idea of New Year's resolutions that are primarily about looking forward and finding ways to make the coming year better and more fulfilling than the one that is ending. To me, coming from such a stern tradition, this time of the year appears buoyant and full of color. If only I do these things (lengthy list follows) my life will be transformed. The thought makes me feel light and airy.
And yet so many people talk about the disappointments that are quick to follow. These well-crafted aspirations for a better year filled with joy and laughter resemble the quick wish we send over the vast space when we see a falling star. In reality, our desires prove to be a lot harder to accomplish.
One important idea I took from my childhood repentance practices is a fundamental belief that change requires work and that even the Almighty cannot, or rather will not, interfere in the debates and disagreement between people.
"This one is on you," I was taught from childhood.
"If you want to fix a disagreement with a friend, go ahead and do it. Do not involve a third party."
Only after you do these things it is OK to start fixing the year that is beginning.
As I sort through possible New Year's resolutions that will make me happy—lose weight, exercise more, clean the house more often, practice patience, and understanding, read that book that gathers dust on the shelf but possibly holds all the wisdom I need to turn my life around—I realize that New Year's resolutions and the pursuit of happiness seem easy compared to asking forgiveness from another person. This act of accountability is the boot camp where one gets fit to take on the rest of the year's resolutions. This one is as hard as it gets.