Rebirth and Rejuvenation: How Have Ancient New Year’s Traditions Influenced Festivities Today?
January 1st, New Year’s Day, is often ushered in with fireworks and festivities beginning on December 31st. Although this practice is the norm in many places around the world, not every culture has celebrated the start of a new year in this way, or necessarily on January 1st. There are many ways to honor the new year and several of them are based on ancient traditions.
The Bloodthirsty Beast Who Shaped the Chinese New Year
The Chinese New Year is one of the oldest extant traditions in the world. This holiday has been traced back as far as three millennia ago, with origins in the Shang Dynasty. In its earliest days, this festival was linked to the sowing of spring seeds, but it eventually found ties to a fascinating legend. One popular version of the myth discusses the annual exploits of a bloodthirsty creature called Nian —now the Chinese word for “year”. To protect themselves and frighten off the beast, villagers decided to decorate their homes with red ornaments, burn bamboo, and make loud noises. The tactic worked, and bright colors and lights are still present in New Year’s festivities today. These days, Chinese New Year celebrations involve food, family reunions, and the gifting of lucky money (usually in a red envelope), and the presence of several other red things for good luck. Lion and dragon dances, drums, fireworks, and firecrackers fill the streets on this day.
Dragon dance on Chinese New Year. (BigStockPhoto)
The use of the lunar calendar, a calendar dating to the second millennium BC, means that the Chinese New Year usually falls in late January or early February on the second new moon after the winter solstice. The Chinese have linked each year to one of the 12 animals represented in the zodiac: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, or pig.
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Rebirth in Nowruz - The ‘Persian New Year’
Nowruz (or Norooz) is the name given to the ‘Persian New Year’ – a 13-day long spring festival. Many of the traditions linked to this celebration have origins in the ancient past and are still practiced in Iran and other parts of the Middle East and Asia. The Persian New Year is celebrated on or around the vernal equinox in March. This holiday is often associated with the Zoroastrian religion. The first accounts of Nowruz appear in the 2nd century, but scholars believe that it has existed since at least the 6th century BC. Nowruz is one of the few ancient Persian festivals to survive Iran’s conquest by Alexander the Great in 333 BC and the rise of Islamic rule in the 7th century AD.
This New Year festival was focused on the rebirth that accompanied the return of spring. Nowruz traditions include: feasting, exchanging gifts with family members and neighbors, lighting bonfires, dyeing eggs, and sprinkling water – a symbol of creation. There have been changes to Nowruz customs over the years, but bonfires and coloring eggs remain popular in the modern version of the holiday, which is observed by an estimated 300 million people every year.
A painting representing a Qajar family gathering for Nowruz, and sitting around the Haft-Sin and probably reading Hafez. ( Public Domain )
The Sinhalese and Tamil New Year
Sri Lankan Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils have separate New Year’s celebrations that fall on the same day. Aluth avurudda, the Sinhalese New Year, is held on April 13th or 14th and marks the end of the harvest season. There is the belief in an astrological time gap between the end of the old year and beginning of a new one. This occurs as the sun passes from the Meena Rashiya (House of Pisces) to the Mesha Rashiya (House of Aries) in the celestial sphere. Buddhist rituals and customs and social gatherings and festive parties take place during this time. Gifts are exchanged, an oil lamp is lit, and rice milk is made during the Sinhalese New Year as well. Hindu households in Assam, Bengal, Kerala, Nepal, Orissa, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu also celebrate the New Year on April 14th or 15th.
A plate of Konda Kavum, a traditional Sri Lankan dish eating during New Year’s celebrations. It is a deep-fried sweet made with rice flour and treacle. (Chamal N/ CC BY SA 3.0 )