A History of New Year's Day

A History of New Year's Day
Another New Year. A chance to make some resolutions and start anew. We do it every year on January 1. But, did you know that New Year’s Day was not always celebrated on January 1?

Actually, the celebration of the new year is the oldest of all the holidays. In fact, it was first observed in ancient Babylon 4000 years ago. The early Babylonians were totally reliant on agriculture, as were all early civilizations. So, the new year would naturally begin on the first New Moon after the Spring Equinox. This was the time of the planting of the seeds, when new life was beginning to emerge once more into the bleak and barren landscape of winter. The Babylonian “New Year” celebrations lasted for eleven days. Each day represents a special focus on new life and new beginnings.

The Romans were the ones who were responsible for moving the date of the first day of the new year from late march to January 1. The old Roman calendar was based on the seasons and the equinoxes and solstices just as the Babylonian one was. But, the problem was that the calendar was reset each time a new Emperor came into being. A succession of emperors changed the date so many times that eventually the whole calendar was out of synch with the seasons. To try and correct the error, in 153 BC, the Roman senate finally declared that January 1 was to be the beginning of the new year.

Along came Julius Caesar, in 46 BC. He established the Julian Calendar, which permanently mandated the date of January 1 to be the celebration of the first day of the new year. But once again, the calendar and the seasons were way out of synchronization, so in order to correct the issue once again, Caesar had to make the first year of the Julian Calendar 445 days long. Through a series of complicated manipulations with the calendar, including inserting and removing several months, and adding and subtracting days, the calendar and the seasons were once again in synch. However, the date for the new year was now firmly set at Jan. 1st.

When the early Catholic Church was formed, New Year’s celebrations were considered to be of a pagan nature. The celebrations continued nonetheless. As with most of the other holidays, the church incorporated their own religious days into the pre-existing pagan celebrations. New Year’s Day was no different in that respect. It became the Feast of Christ’s Circumcision. Ouch!! I’m not so sure that he would see that as something to celebrate. There was still opposition from the Church throughout the Middle ages. In fact New Year’s Day has only really been in existence in the Western world for about 400 years.

Many of today’s traditions concerning New Year’s Day come from ancient Babylonia, including making resolutions. Our resolutions are a bit different than those of the Babylonians, whose most popular resolution was to return borrowed farm equipment.

The New Year’s baby comes to us from ancient Greece circa 600 BC. During a ritual that honored the Wine God Dionysus, a baby was carried through the crowd in a basket, which represented the rebirth of Dionysus as the spirit of fertility. This custom in a similar form
was also promoted in early Egypt.

Again, the early Christian church was not happy with this pagan custom. But, again, the custom continued. The Church eventually had to allow it’s followers to honor the baby as the symbol of rebirth. However they turned the baby into a symbol of the birth of the baby Jesus.

Here are some interesting tidbits concerning New Years traditions around the globe:

Since it was thought that the luck of a person for the coming year would depend on what they did on the first day of that year. Being in the company of friends and family at the time the New Year arrived was considered to be lucky. It was also believe that the first visitor on New Year’s Day would either bring good luck or bad luck for the coming year. It was considered to extremely lucky if the first visitor happened to be a tall dark haired man.

The Dutch eat donuts on New Year’s Day to bring good fortune. Many cultures believe that anything in the shape of a ring is good luck, because it symbolizes coming full circle and completing another cycle of a year. Black eyed peas, hog jowls, and ham are sometimes eaten because the hog or pig symbolizes prosperity. Cabbage is also seen as a sign of prosperity in some cultures, as is rice.

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