In Burning the Old Year by Naomi Shihab Nye, Nye refers to "notes", "lists", and "letters" as things that can be burned. From reading this poem, I interpret the theme to be the short time for which memories last and about how all of the papers you have will only exist for so long before they are lost and forgotten.

This leads me to believe that "burning" doesn't really refer to burning in the sense of burning wood, but rather another deeper meaning. However, I do not know what that deeper meaning is. So, what does "burning" symbolize in "Burning the Old Year"?

  • 2
    In the most literal sense, the poet is sitting in front of a fireplace disposing of various paperwork that she's collected from around the hourse. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
    – Valorum
    Jan 24, 2017 at 20:33

1 Answer 1


Many cultures have a tradition of lighting fires and the end of the year. This originated as a means to proptitiate the gods and ask for a kind winter and a good crop in the following summer.

Many of these old fire festivals are still followed in one form or another, for example:

Folk traditions like Up Helly Aa or Somerset Carnival
Modified and adopted by christianity like Burning the Yule Log
Politicised like Guy Fawkes Night

...and that is just British fire festivals.

By referencing the burning of the year, she is tapping into the collective consciousness that burning the old year ensures that the new year will be better.

  • You mention Guy Fawkes Night but not the Lewes Bonfire? :-o
    – Rand al'Thor
    Feb 3, 2017 at 14:01
  • Well, Lewes is on a whole different level. The sheer scale of it puts it above any of the other things you've mentioned here (except maybe Somerset Carnivals, which I hadn't heard of before but which also look pretty big).
    – Rand al'Thor
    Feb 3, 2017 at 14:05
  • @Randal'Thor: They get a literary mention in Fay Weldon's In the Heart of the Country
    – Chenmunka
    Feb 3, 2017 at 14:22

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