Over at Hirhurim, (R’ Gil Student’s blog), Rabbi Michael Broyde has a good analysis of the halachic issues regarding “celebrating” secular holidays.
Here’s an excerpt:
It is quite clear that on a historical level that Catholic Europe celebrated New Years day religiously for centuries. Indeed, consider the simple remarks of the Rama writing in the Darchei Moshe YD 148 quoting the Terumat Hadeshen. He states:
It is written in the Terumat Hadeshen 195 that even nowadays one who wants to send [gifts] on the eighth day after Christmas which is called New Years should send such [gifts] during the day before [December 31st] and not on the day of the holiday, itself. And if the day before the holiday falls out on Shabbat, one may send on the day of the holiday, itself as there is a matter of hatred [eiva] if one sends later than that or more before then.
While the Rama in the Shulchan Aruch (YD 148:12) does not quote this formulation exactly, it is clear to me that this is function of censorship within the Rama and not because the matter is in dispute. According to Rama, New Year’s day is a Christian Holiday (indeed the formulation in the Terumat Hadeshen makes it clear that we are discussing the eighth day of Christmas as much as New Year’s day) whose celebration must be avoided and can only be marked when long term life threatening hatred to our community will result if gifts are not given.
On the other hand, the reality seems to have completely changed. New Year’s Day – like Valentine’s Day and unlike Christmas – seems to have completely lost its Christian overtones. Even in the deep Christian South where I live there are no indicia that connect New Years Day to Christianity. The “first generation” Hindu and Muslim communities in Atlanta – who would never celebrate Christmas – have New Year’s Eve parties. It is obvious that the status of New Year’s Day has changed in the last three hundred years.
Indeed, in contemporary America there is little religious content or expression to New Year’s Day. Few would classify it as a religious holiday, as there is a clear secular method and reason to celebrate New Year’s day, and thus it has lost its status as a Christian Holiday. Rabbi Feinstein notes this directly himself in Iggerot Moshe (Even Haezer 2:13). He writes with regard to New Year’s:
The first day of the year for them [January 1] . . . is not prohibited according to law, but pious people [baalei nefesh] should be strict.
This insight, written in 1963, is even more true nowadays. The Christian origins of New Year’s is even more cloaked now than a half century ago.
Read the whole post here.