The celebration of a “new year” has ancient roots. As you may have read, the first recorded observance was called Akitu. It was celebrated by ancient Babylonians, who rejoiced over the sun god’s (Marduk) mythical victory against the evil sea goddess (Tiamat). It was during this time a new king was crowned.
Akitu thrived from 2000 BC-60 BC and ran from 21 Addaru to 1 Nisannu on the Babylonian Calendar. As history and religion progressed, so did the way we catalog them.
Defining the Days
It would be hard for early humankind to ignore the changing seasons, and specific holidays were usually determined by important astrological or agricultural events.
In Ancient Egypt, the new year began with the star Sirius rising in the sky, during the month of Tekh in the season of Akhet on the Ancient Egyptian Calendar. Around this time, the annual flooding of the Nile occurred. In Egyptian mythology, Isis (Goddess of motherhood) cried over her deceased brother/husband, Osiris (God of the afterlife). Ancient Egyptians thought Isis’ tears caused the Nile to overflow.
It was actually caused by rain on the southern mountains, and in 1970, it was dammed.
Rotate the globe to China. They, along with many Asian countries, use the Lunar Calendar. The Chinese New Year is on the second new moon after the winter solstice. According to Chinese mythology, a lion-like monster named Nian preyed on villagers. A wise old man warded Nian off with loud drums, firecrackers and red scrolls. Nian was scared of the color red, apparently.
Now, let’s spin the metaphorical globe to Italy.
Re-defining the Days
In 753 BC, Romulus, the founder of Rome, created the Roman calendar. It had 10 months and 304 days, with each new year beginning on the vernal equinox. This was an imperfect system. Over the centuries, it fell out of sync with the sun. As a result, Emperor Julius Cesar created the Julian Calendar in 76 BC.
Or rather, he hired sophisticated astronomers and gave it his seal of approval.
In the new calendar, he declared January 1st New Years Day, partly in honor of Janus (God of beginnings). Romans celebrated by offering sacrifices, exchanging gifts, decorating with branches and throwing wild parties. Christians later diminished the holiday for religious practices, but it was fully re-instated by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. He also created the Gregorian calendar.
Is there anyone that didn’t name a calendar after themselves?
The reason for the calendar change was mathematical. The Julian calendar assumes a year is 365.25 days, but a year is actually 11 minutes short of that. The Gregorian calendar adjusted leap years to account for the 11 minutes, and is now the globally accepted standard.
Celebrations Around the World
The last day of the Gregorian Calendar is December 31st, New Years Eve. The first day is January 1st, New Years Day.
In the United States, we have parades, concerts, attend church services and watch post-season college football bowl games or the NHL Winter Classic. Like Canada, Ireland, the UK and the Netherlands, groups participate in “Polar Bear Plunges,” where they run into freezing water as a group, often for charity.
Most notably, we spend time with family and friends, wearing funny hats and glasses, counting down the seconds until midnight, when the New Year’s ball drops in Times Square. At midnight, couples share a “New Year’s kiss.” In the next year, we plan to work on personal “resolutions.”
But we quickly give up on them.
The celebration is marked with confetti, champagne, noise-makers and the traditional singing of “Auld Lang Syne.” It’s a Scottish poem written in 1788 by Robert Burns, and means “Old Long Since.”
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot and auld lang syne…”
By the way, in Scotland, New Year’s is called Hogmanay. In Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, the locals spin wire-strung fireballs in the city streets while the Old Town House bell rings.
Japan rings bells at midnight too. Buddhist temples, in fact, ring bells 108 times to symbolically rid the past years’ sins. The Japanese celebrate with fasting and the sending of New Years postcards.
“Greetings from last year!”
Along with this modern New Year, Thailand observes their traditional new year (Songkran) based on the solar calendar Suriyakhati. Songkran starts Mesayon 13 (April 13) with the celebratory splashing of water and blessings.
Ethiopia still uses an ancient calendar and their new year (Enkutash) begins Meskerem 1 (September 11). It marks the end of their rainy season and is celebrated with religious service, songs, dancing and gifts.
The Jewish new year is Rosh Hashanah, observed on Tishrei 1 and 2 of the Hebrew Calendar (typically in September). The day is believed to be the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve. Customs include going to Synagogue, sounding a shofar (hollowed-out ram’s horn) and eating symbolic foods, like honey-dipped apples.
India follows the Hindu Calendar and has several different New Years celebrations, depending on the region. Now, count all the countries we visited on the metaphorical globe.
Fourteen?! That means there’s over 180 I didn’t cover! Let me keep going.
In Spain, they eat 12 grapes (one for each of midnight’s twelve chimes) and make a wish. In Greece, the hang “rebirth” onions above doors. In Denmark, they throw dishes and eat firework cakes. In Germany, they eat doughnuts and marzipan pigs. In Ecuador, they burn dummies (symbolic of sin), and in Serbia they basically celebrate Christmas.
Twenty countries. I tried.
New Year’s is possibly the oldest holiday on the calendar. Every region has their own unique tradition, stemming from their own specific time zone, geography and religious beliefs.
If nothing else, it shows us how interesting human history can be and how (despite the social and religious barriers) we can all have something in common: the ability to unite.
No matter if your New Year is in the spring or winter; if you judge it by the sun or the moon; if you celebrate with prayer or parties, by joining in the festivities, you are uniting with other people in a special occasion bigger than yourself; that extends through generations of love and goodwill; that brings us together as one. Because when it comes down to it, we are all the same. We all want to love and be loved.
And that is the absolute truth behind every holiday.
So, here’s a toast to you and yours and mine and ours. May all the best come your way not only in the New Year, but all years to come.