New Year’s in History

New Year's

New Year’s Day is a time traditionally for new beginnings, as an old year expires, and a new year arrives. This gives hope to many for better fortunes and new directions. People will count down the final seconds of the old year, and celebrate once those seconds of the old yield to a new day and a new year. Auld Lang Syne is sung in many English-speaking countries, and many celebrate with fireworks and the drinking of champagne. It has become a popular tradition to make New Year’s Resolutions, although that particular tradition is believed to date back thousands of years ago, to the first celebrations honoring a new year during the days of ancient Babylon. There is a long history of New Year’s traditions that many are now aware of. Back in ancient times, the first resolutions tended to focus on returning borrowed far equipment and paying off debts, although more modern resolutions tend to focus on many more things.

Many are not aware of just how old this tradition of celebrating a new year is. This tradition dates back over 4,000 years, although there were some significant differences that have been seen to usher in a new year throughout history. The first festival to celebrate the approach of a new year was the huge Akitu festival in ancient Babylonia, although this was celebrated during the first new moon in the spring equinox, when daylight and nighttime are roughly equal. The word Akitu comes from the Sumerian word for barley, which was produced in the springtime. The festival lasted 1 days, with each day being different, and celebrated the triumph of the sky god Marduk over the villainous sea goddess, Tiamat. These festivals also had a political significance, as new kings were crowned, or old ones had their leadership symbolically renewed.

In ancient Rome under Julius Caesar in 46 BCE, a new calendar was introduced, known as the Julian calendar. He had consulted a famous and reputable astronomer of his age who helped devise the calendar. This calendar followed the patterns of the sun, rather than the traditional lunar calendar, and that meant adding 90 days to the year. Celebrations for ushering in a new year were moved from March 1, the day honored as New Year’s for ancient Romans, to January 1 under the new Julian calendar.

The Julian calendar replaced the traditional calendar that had been created by Romulus and lasted 304 days, which were divided into 10 months. This was a lunar-based calendar, however, and that was why Caesar eventually replaced it. King Numa Pompilius is thought to have added the months of Januarius and Febuarius. Januarius, specifically, was named after Janus, the Roman god of new beginnings. This explains in part why Caesar moved the new year to the beginning of January, in honor of this god. Janus had two faces, which allowed him to both look back to the past, as well as forward towards the future. With the new year celebrated now in January, Romans decorated their houses with laurels and exchanged gifts, and they also enjoyed rather rowdy parties.

Indeed throughout ancient history, numerous civilizations around the world used quite complex calendars that recognized a new year according to astronomical or agricultural significance. The flooding of the Nile in ancient Egypt was celebrated as the new year, which also was when the star Sirius rose in the night sky. The Chinese new year was recognized on the second new moon following the winter solstice.

But during the Middle Ages, the Christian church eliminated many of the ancient traditions celebrating the new year, since they were uncomfortable with their pagan background. That resulted in various dates being recognized as New Year’s Day across Europe, including December 25, the date recognized as the birthday of Jesus, and March 25, the day of the Feast of Annunciation. Indeed, our modern April Fool’s Day originated as a means to discredit and ridicule those who recognized and celebrated a new year in the spring. Spring was traditionally seen as a natural time to usher in a new year, being the season of new life.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII once and for all established a new calendar, known as the Gregorian calendar, that remains in use today. Now, the date for New Year’s Day became January 1st, and that remains widely recognized around much of the world to the present age. Celebrations begin on the last day of the Gregorian calendar, December 31 (which has come to be known as New Year’s Eve), as the countdown begins until the next day brings the first day of another year.

Yet still, some parts of the world celebrate New Year’s on other dates, and some places even still recognize the lunar calendar. In Judaism, there is the tradition of Rosh Hashanah, which celebrates the Jewish new year, and is celebrated in the autumn. That is also the case in the Islamic calendar, with Muharram, the Islamic new year, which also takes place in the fall. The Chinese New Year is celebrated at some point between late January or early February, and lasts for one month.

The most famous and iconic traditional New Year’s celebration in the United States takes place annually in New York City’s Times Square. This tradition has become an annual event, and has been celebrated almost every year since back in 1907. Tens of thousands cram into Time’s Square to watch this New Year’s tradition of the ball dropping at midnight, and it is estimated that roughly one billion watch the ball drop on television. The ball now is a 12-foot crystal ball with brilliant patterns to make a spectacular light show, although the original ball was actually an orb made of iron and wood, and weighed 700 pounds. Numerous other towns across the country have come up with similar traditions of dropping things to usher in New Year’s Day. In Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, pickles are dropped. In Tallapoosa, Georgia, possums are dropped.

There are other traditions for New Year’s Day, as well. One of the most universal in English-speaking countries is the singing of Auld Lang Syne, a traditional Scottish folk song attributed to Scottish poet Robert Burns, who wrote it in 1788. The lyrics suggest that old friendship should be remembered, and the song was commonly played since the mid-19th century. However, it became widely popularized as a New Year’s tradition when the song was done by Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians and broadcast in New York’s Roosevelt Hotel and played at midnight in 1929. They continued to play that song until 1976, and their version of the song is still widely played right to the present.

Also in the United States, a tradition of purification through kissing a significant other has been popularized, and loud noise for that exact moment that a new year began was originally meant to drive away bad spirits. In England, the first guest to arrive at a party is believed to hold good fortune, and this should be a man bearing gifts. Anyone arriving first without gifts will not be permitted in until another with gifts arrives. The Japanese decorate their homes with a pine branch symbolizing longevity, a bamboo branch for prosperity, and a plum blossom for nobility. In China, every front door is given a fresh coat of red paint as a symbol of good luck and contentment, and families will use knives to prepare a big feast ushering in the new year. Every knife is to be put away for 24 hours to prevent anyone having some kind of an accident with the knives, as it is believed that will cut a family’s good fortune for the year.

New Year’s Day has a long and rich history, and there are still different traditions that persist around the world to this day as well. In Spain and other Spanish speaking nations, there is a tradition of eating 12 grapes in the waning seconds before New Year’s Day. In Greece, Mexico, Netherlands, and some other nations, a ring-shaped cake is eaten to signify that another year has come full circle. In Austria, Cuba, Hungry, and Portugal, as well as some other places, pork is eaten, because pigs are supposed to represent prosperity and progress. In some areas of the world, legumes resembling coins are consumed because they represent prosperity. That includes lentils in Italy, and black-eyed peas in the southern United States. In Sicily, lasagna is eaten, and any other noodle on this day is considered bad luck. In some parts of Scandinavia, an almond is hidden in rice pudding, and this is supposed to give whoever gets it 12 months of good fortune. In China, eating dumplings are supposed to give one an auspicious new year. In Japan, long buckwheat noodles are supposed to represent a long life.

By Charles Bordeau


Photo by Sarah J. – Flickr

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