For my write-up today on Circle of Life: Traditional Teachings of Native American Elders, I’ll use as my starting-point something that James David Audlin says on page 12:
“Among many nations, including the Hodenasaunee and Tsalagi (Cherokee), these [New Year] ceremonies were times of sacred chaos, of completely unrestrained behavior, and cleansing. At the New Year itself, the usual patterns of appropriate behavior were suspended. All debts were forgiven. All those punished were released from punishment. Inebriation, sexual activity, and other bawdy behavior were the ‘rule’ rather than the exception. The purpose of the chaos was to cleanse the psychological detritus from the previous year, so the new year could begin with a clean slate. The newcomers to this continent still have a lingering cultural memory of this ancient worldwide tribal tradition in the exuberant behavior they exhibit on New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras—-though it is, ironically, now limited by law and custom, forbidding the healthiest and most purgative kinds of chaotic behavior, such as sexuality, and limiting revelers to the most unhealthy kinds of license, such as drunkenness and rowdy behavior.”
Are there any parallels between this and what we see in the Pentateuch? I’d say yes, on some level. The Pentateuch has Yom Kippur, which takes place soon after the Fall New Year, and it is a time of new beginnings, as the Israelites’ sins are forgiven and the sanctuary is cleansed (Leviticus 16). At the same time, in contrast to certain other cultures’ New Year’s festivals (as Audlin describes them), Yom Kippur is not a day of license and partying for the purpose of purgation, for what accompanies the atonement on that day is the Israelites’ affliction of their own souls (Leviticus 16:29, 31; 23:27, 32; Numbers 29:7).
But the Feast of Tabernacles is a time of rejoicing and partying, when the Israelites can use their second tithe for “whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth” (Deuteronomy 14:26, in the KJV). And the Feast of Tabernacles may have been the original new year’s festival, since Exodus 34:22 says that the Feast of Ingathering occurs at the coming around (the NRSV renders it “turn”) of the year. Do we see in the Feast of Tabernacles a remnant of the ancient tribal tradition that Audlin talks about? Perhaps, but it’s worth noting that there is no explicit indication in the Pentateuch that the rejoicing on the Feast of Tabernacles has a purgative purpose; rather, its purpose could have been to celebrate God’s role in providing Israel with a bountiful harvest.
On that note, what I thought about when I read that passage in Audlin’s book was the festival in the Star Trek episode “The Return of the Archons”, though I doubt that the cultures that Audlin talked about had a festival as chaotic as what is on that episode (see here)!