January is the first month of the Gregorian Calendar, a time accounting device that measures the solar year and has been accepted as the Western standard. This common calendar was used during the Roman Empire and reflects the importance of Roman holidays celebrating the Winter Solstice, associations which were retained when pagan festivals were transformed into Christian celebrations.
January 1 is the first day in the Western Calendar because it was associated with Jesus' circumcision. Epiphany, yet another week later, commemorates the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Many Eastern Christians who still adhere to the older Roman Julian calendar, don't celebrate Christmas until much later, this last year around the 7th of January. As a result, their Epiphany was later as well.
However, for other traditions, the New Year has already come and gone, or is yet to arrive. For some religious folks, January is just a bridge between multiple celebrations.
It's often said that the Jewish tradition has three "New Year" festivals. Passover (Pesach) marks the new agricultural year and Rosh HaShonah the new liturgical year. The third 'new year' is Tu B'Shvat, the New Year of the Trees. This year, Tu B'Shvat begins the evening of Jan 25 and is observed for one day.
According to tradition, this festival, which falls on the full moon of Shevat, celebrated the first rising of the sap and the flowering of almond trees. Ancient Israelites would dance around the trees pouring libations of wine and lightly whipping the trees with small sticks to "wake" them.
Now, the festival acts as Arbor Day in modern Israel when trees are planted as a sign of permanence, renewal and memory. Outside Israel, mystically inclined Jews participate in Kabbalistic seders that symbolically link fruits of the earth with stations of the soul and encourage environmental awareness of the sacred earth.
This January, Muslims around the world will celebrate the birth of the prophet Muhammad in the festival of Milawd un Nabi. The Prophet's birthday moves through the solar year because Muslims use a lunar calendar, but this year Milawd un Nabi takes place on Jan. 23/24 for Sunni Muslims and 28/29 for Shi'a Muslims.
Milawd un Nabi is not the same as the birth of Christ for Christians, but it is an important time for Muslims to gather together with family and friends in a big feast. Eid Milawd un Nabi is celebrated throughout the Middle East, Indonesia and in India. Special appeals by charities are often made during this time so that one may give generously in the name of Muhammad.
Sikhs also commemorate the birth of two principal gurus during the month of January, Guru Gobind Rai Sahib (10th) on Jan. 5 and Guru Har Rai Sahib (7th) on Jan 31. Sikh tradition is based on the revealed teachings of ten Master teachers.
The biggest festival of this period, however, at least for now, given the lunar nature of the Hindu calendar, is the Maha Kumbh Mela, a 55 day festival that began in late December and will continue in various phases through the first part of February.
Every 3-4 years (by Western reckoning), the Kumbh Mela is cycled through four festival locations. Every 12 years it returns to where the Yamuna and Ganga rivers are said to meet the non-physical river of the Saraswati in Allahabad. This is the "biggest Kumbh."
Kumbh means "pitcher" but often, in practice, refers to the holy act of bathing in the sacred river itself, pouring oneself out, as it were. It is said that bathing in the Ganga at the right time during the Kumbh Mela will cure the sins of seven incarnations.
It is one of the most important pilgrimage festivals in India and perhaps the largest single festival on the planet. At the height of the celebrations, it is estimated that between 100 and 110 million people will attend and participate.
Finally, January 20 is World Religion Day, a date that many traditions have begun to observe in recognition of the many positive things religion has done in building human civilization and generating community and meaning. It never hurts to start over.