With New Year’s Eve right upon us, I thought it would be fun to take a look at when New Year’s celebrations began and what some of them have been like over the years.
In the beginning …
From what I found, the earliest recorded New Year’s festivities date back about 4,000 years to ancient Babylon. In their culture, the first new moon following the vernal equinox (the day in late March with an equal amount of sunlight and darkness) brought the start of a new year. They celebrated with a huge religious festival that involved different rituals on each of its 11 days. New kings were crowned or existing kings’ rulings were renewed during the celebration.
Agriculture and astronomy also guided the beginning of new years for other civilizations. The Egyptian year began with the annual flooding of the Nile, which coincided with the rising of the star Sirius. The first day of the Chinese new year occurred with the second new moon after the winter solstice.
January 1 gets recognized …
The early Roman calendar began at the vernal equinox (like the Babylonians) and was made up of 10 months. King Numa Pompilius later added two more months to their calendar. The calendar fell out of sync with the sun over the following centuries.
During Julius Caesar’s reign, he decided to fix the problem. He consulted with prominent astronomers and mathematicians and introduced the Julian calendar, which was very similar to the Gregorian calendar most countries use today.
Part of Caesar’s reform included designating January 1 as the first day of the year. This was partly to honor the month’s namesake – Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, whose two faces allowed him to look into the past and the future. The Romans celebrated by offering sacrifices to Janus, exchanging gifts with each other, decorating their homes, and throwing parties.
Christian leaders in medieval Europe temporarily replaced January 1 as the first of the year with days carrying more religious significance, such as December 25. Pope Gregory XIII reestablished January 1 as New Year’s Day in 1582.
The ever-evolving traditions …
Many New Year’s celebrations center on food that’s thought to bring luck in the coming year. For example:
- People in Spain and several other Spanish speaking countries eat a dozen grapes just before midnight, to symbolize their hopes for the months ahead
- Many countries share dishes that include legumes that are thought to resemble coins and predict financial success (such as lentils in Italy and black-eyed peas in the Southern U.S.)
- Families in Cuba, Austria, Hungary, Portugal, and others eat pork on New Year’s Eve because pigs represent progress and prosperity in their cultures
- Ring-shaped pastries and cakes symbolize that the year has come full circle in the Netherlands, Mexico, and Greece
- A favorite New Year’s Eve dessert in Sweden and Norway is rice pudding with an almond hidden inside. They say that whoever finds the nut can expect 12 months of good fortune.
Fireworks, singing (especially “Auld Lang Syne” in English speaking countries), and making resolutions are also common around the world. And, of course, one of the most iconic New Year’s symbols in the U.S. is the dropping of the giant ball in New York City’s Times Square at the stroke of midnight. Many other towns and cities have adopted their own versions of a New Year’s drop – the city of Atlanta near where I live drops a giant peach since Georgia is called the Peach State.
Now it’s your turn! Do you have special traditions to celebrate New Year’s, or does your town (or one nearby) have a special New Year’s drop? Or, what's the craziest New Year's tradition you've heard about? We’d love to hear so we can celebrate the beginning of 2014 together.