Akitu Festival

New Year’s Traditions around the World and Their Origins

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In many countries around the world, New Year’s Day is celebrated on 1 st January with fireworks and festivities the evening before. But this is not the only type of New Year’s celebration and not everyone celebrates on 1 st January.  Here we look at celebrations to honour the New Year in different cultures around the world.

Chinese New Year and the bloodthirsty beast

One of the oldest traditions still celebrated today is Chinese New Year, which is believed to have originated around three millennia ago during the Shang Dynasty. The holiday began as a way of celebrating the new beginnings of the spring planting season, but later it became connected with myth and legend. According to one account, there was once a bloodthirsty creature called Nian —now the Chinese word for “year”—that preyed on villages every New Year. In order to frighten the hungry beast, the villagers took to decorating their homes with red trimmings, burning bamboo and making loud noises. The ruse worked, and the bright colours and lights associated with scaring off Nian eventually became integrated into the customs that are still seen today. Festivities are now celebrated with food, families, lucky money (usually in a red envelope), and many other red things for good luck. Lion and dragon dances, drums, fireworks, firecrackers, and other types of entertainment fill the streets on this day. Since Chinese New Year is still based on a lunar calendar that dates back to the second millennium BC, the holiday typically falls in late January or early February on the second new moon after the winter solstice. Each year is associated with one of 12 zodiacal animals: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog or pig.

Dragon dance on Chinese New Year. Source: BigStockPhoto

Nowruz and the Persian New Year

The ‘Persian New Year’, otherwise called Nowruz (or Norooz), is a 13-day spring festival that reaches far back into antiquity, though many of the traditions associated with it are still celebrated in Iran and other parts of the Middle East and Asia. The festival is celebrated on or around the vernal equinox in March and is believed to have originated as part of the Zoroastrian religion. Official records of Nowruz did not appear until the 2nd century, but most historians believe its celebration dates back at least as far as the 6th century BC.  Unlike many other ancient Persian festivals, Nowruz persisted as an important holiday even after Iran’s conquest by Alexander the Great in 333 BC and the rise of Islamic rule in the 7th century A.D.

Ancient observances of Nowruz focused on the rebirth that accompanied the return of spring. Traditions included feasts, exchanging presents with family members and neighbours, lighting bonfires, dyeing eggs and sprinkling water to symbolise creation. Nowruz has evolved considerably over time, but many of its ancient traditions—particularly the use of bonfires and coloured eggs—remain a part of the modern holiday, which is observed by an estimated 300 million people each year.

Bas-relief in Persepolis - a symbol Zoroastrian Nowruz - in day of a spring equinox power of eternally fighting bull (personifying the Earth), and a lion (personifying the Sun), are equal. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Sinhalese and Tamil New Year

Sinhalese New Year is celebrated by the Sri Lankan Sinhalese, while the Tamil New Year on the same day is celebrated by Sri Lankan Tamils. The Sinhalese New Year (aluth avurudda), marks the end of harvest season and is held on 13 th or 14 th April. There is an astrologically generated time gap between the passing year and the New Year, which is based on the passing of the sun from the Meena Rashiya (House of Pisces) to the Mesha Rashiya (House of Aries) in the celestial sphere. The astrological time difference between the New Year and the passing year is celebrated with several Buddhist rituals and customs, as well as social gatherings and festive parties.  The exchange of gifts, the lighting of the oil lamp, and making rice milk are significant aspects of the Sinhalese New Year.  In Assam, Bengal, Kerala, Nepal, Orissa, Punjab and Tamil Nadu, Hindu households also celebrate the New Year on 14 th or 15 th April.

Ancient Egyptian Wepet Renpet

Ancient Egyptian culture was closely tied to the Nile River, and it appears their New Year corresponded with its annual flood.  The Egyptian New Year was predicted when Sirius—the brightest star in the night sky—first became visible after a 70-day absence, which typically occurred in mid-July just before the annual inundation of the Nile River, which helped ensure that farmlands remained fertile for the coming year. Egyptians celebrated this new beginning with a festival known as Wepet Renpet, which means “opening of the year.” The New Year was seen as a time of rebirth and rejuvenation, and it was honoured with feasts and special religious rites. 

Comments

The Druids used the spring new year to celebrate fertlity

Thank you great historical education

I wish this article on new year's celebrations in various cultures ancient and modern had included Jewish New Year. I'm quite surprised that Norooz was included, but Rosh Hashanah wasn't. Hmm...

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