At midnight the bell tolled. Steam and smoke wafted among the trees and a small fire burned. A square of bright light spilled from the shrine, illuminating the faces of the first few people gathered.
Last year I spent New Year in Japan. A highlight was visiting our friends’ neighbourhood Shinto shrine just before midnight. No fireworks, no party (the evening of New Year’s Day is the time to eat, drink and celebrate with family). Teenagers mucked around too close to the fire which burned to respectfully dispose of religious charms and symbols displayed at home during the previous year. Neighbours chatted quietly as they joined the growing line shuffling toward the shrine to make their first prayer of the year.
I liked the idea of making a prayer to begin the year rather than a resolution. Pausing to think for a moment about what we really hope for in the next year, for ourselves, our friends and families, our work lives, and our communities is a good way to begin. This pause gives us meaningful and significant ambitions to guide our decisions and actions rather than New Year’s resolutions which often skip straight to how we are going to change rather than why.
As we left in the cold and dark we moved out of the shrine complex onto the main road and into the suburb. The line of people had grown, down the street past the bus depot and the restaurant, past the vending machines and toward the intersection. Hundreds of metres of ordinary folk, taking time to name their deepest hopes for the year to come.