What is now celebrated as New Year’s Eve was once a night of mourning for the dying year. Today, in a rush to deny any sign of life’s passing—and thus mortality itself—Americans head straight for the party instead. Yet HIV has taught us that renewed possibility and purpose are often found only by confronting death. When we don’t stop—for even a few moments—to solemnly reflect on life’s endings, life itself can lose meaning.

The beaches of Rio de Janeiro fill each New Year’s Eve with worshipful revelers who bring lighted candles, flowers and perfume and who dance and bathe in the surf to seek favor from the African sea goddess, Iemanja—who legend says, “chooses the men she is to take on the bottomless journey to the depths of the sea.”

Perhaps the key to a truly joyous 2006, one filled with special meaning and second chances, lies not just in looking ahead, but in looking back to traditions as timeless as this. They have carried generations through the long night and into the dawn of a new year.