Centuries of New Year’s tradition
December 30, 2004
It’s New Year’s Eve. It is time to say a good-bye to the past and welcome in the coming of the new year with merriment and celebration. It is a time to reflect on the 365 days, give or take one day depending on a leap year, now expired, honor its passing and to look forward to the promise of new beginnings, a fresh start, a clean slate.
Remember the horrid, impossible to keep, resolutions made in the heat of the moments of festivity and revelry last New Year’s Eve? Did we all keep those promises to ourselves? Probably not.
Will we make the same promises to ourselves again this year? Probably so. Will we be able to keep the promises this year? It would be nice to think so but, the laws of probability dictate otherwise.
Resolutions are a tradition, an inseparable part of our new year celebrations, only as old as the January date designated to be the first day of the new year, which in fact, is a relatively new phenomenon in the diverse cultures of our world.
According to information obtained from websites http://www.mn.essortment.com, http://www.infoplease.com, and http://www.wilstar.com, the earliest recording of a new year celebration was believed to have been in Mesopotamia, circa 2000 B.C. and was celebrated around the time of the vernal equinox, in mid March.
Other ancient cultures, the Egyptians, Phoenicians and the Persians chose the fall equinox as a time to celebrate the beginning of a new year.
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The Greeks came the closest to our present date of new year observances and chose the winter solstice as a time for new year celebrations.
The early Roman calendar designated March 1 as the new year. The calendar had just 10 months, beginning with March. This fact is still reflected in some of the names of the months.
September through December, our ninth through 12th month, were originally positioned as the seventh through 10th months.
Septem is Latin for “seven,” octo is “eight,” novem is “nine,” and decem in “10.” The months of January and February did not exist until 700 B.C. when the second king of Rome, Numa Pontilius, added those two months. The new year was moved from March to January because that was now the beginning of the civil year. But this new year date was not always strictly and widely observed and the new year was still sometimes celebrated on March 1.
Julius Caesar introduced a new, solar-based calendar that was a vast improvement on the ancient Roman calendar around 46 B.C. The Roman calendar, which had been tampered with by various emperors, had been based on a lunar system and had become wildly inaccurate over the years.
The Julian calendar decreed that the new year would occur on Jan. 1. It had no astronomical nor agricultural significance like the dates chosen around the equinoxes and solstices. It was purely arbitrary but, within the Roman world, Jan. 1 became the consistently observed start of the new year.
The acceptance of the Julian calendar was not without its own set of problems as in order to synchronize the calendar with the sun, Caesar had to let the previous year drag on for 445 days.
During the Middle Ages, the Jan. 1 observance was abolished and the celebrations accompanying the new year were considered pagan and unchristian like. In 567 the Council of Tours abolished Jan. 1 as the beginning of the year.
At times and in various places throughout medieval Christian Europe, the new year was celebrated on Dec. 25, the birth of Jesus; March 1, March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, as well as Easter.
It wasn’t until 1582, over 400 years ago, that the Gregorian calendar, a modification of the Julian calendar proposed by Neapolitan doctor Aloysisus Lilus, and decreed by Pope Gregory XIII, for whom it was named, on Feb. 24, 1582, re-designated Jan. 1 as the start of the new year. Most of the Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar almost immediately. It was only gradually adopted among Protestant countries like Britian, for example, who did not adopt the reformed calendar until 1752. Before then, the British Empire, including her colonies, still celebrated the new year in March.
Now Jan. 1 is the most universally accepted observance of the beginning of a new year but, the old days have not been forgotten. The Jewish faith still observes the beginning of their new year during the fall months of September or October. This is known as Rosh Hashanah. The Chinese begin their new year observances on Feb. 9, the Islamic faith celebrates Muharram as the beginning of their new year, and Samhain (pronounced sow-in), observed on Oct. 31, is the new year in the many pagan religions.
Throughout the world, the collectively accepted day of Jan. 1 comes with an abundance of varied traditions. As the clock strikes midnight one tick at a time over the expanse of the earth, the occasion is celebrated in many ways that all seem to have a common meaning:
In Puerto Rico, children enjoy throwing pails of water out the window at midnight, believing that this will rid the house of evil spirits.
In Spain when the clock strikes midnight, the people eat 12 grapes. One grape for every stroke of the clock to represent each month in the year. Each grape is said to bring good luck in the new year.
Switzerland believes good luck comes from letting a drop of cream land on the floor New Years Day, while in France people eat a stack of pancakes for luck and good health. In Belgium, farmers wish their animals a happy new year, in the hope of special blessings.
Armenian women make special bread for their family, kneaded with luck and good wishes pressed into the dough before it is cooked, while in Portugal, children go caroling from home to home and are given treats and coins. They sing old songs or “Janeiro’s” that is said to bring good luck.
Romanians have a tradition of listening to hear if the farm animals talk on New Year’s Day. If the animals talk it was considered bad luck so they are relieved when they do not hear any talking animals. In Denmark, broken dishes are crashing at doorways to signify how many friends you have while in Greece it is also the Festival of St. Basil, one of the founders of the Greek Orthodox Church, and children leave their shoes out to be filled with presents by the good Saint at midnight.
Here in the United States, it is a time of party hats and noise makers, fireworks and merriment. The fireworks and noisemakers are a hold over from the times when it was believed it would drive away the evil spirits and bad luck to allow only the good to remain. The lighted ball descends its tower in New York City, ticking away the exact second that declares midnight to the familiar strains of “Auld Lang Syne.” The following day everyone gathers around televisions, along with friends and family, to watch the annual Parade of Roses in Pasadena, Calif., and the many football games.
Although all different, all these traditions have a common thread to tie us together in a cosmic bond. It is a sweeping remembrance of the past year and saying good-bye to it. It is a hope for a new year that will bring good luck and the special love of family and friends. No matter what our differences in expectations or religions, it is the one moment in time when we all want the same thing, peace, love, prosperity, and hope for a better world.