The Ancient Origins of New Year’s Celebrations
On January 1st of every year, many countries around the world celebrate the beginning of a new year. But there is nothing new about New Year’s. In fact, festivals and celebrations marking the beginning of a new calendar year have been around for millennia. While some festivities were simply a chance to drink and be merry, many other New Year celebrations were linked to agricultural or astronomical events.
A New Year Doesn’t Have to Begin on January 1st
In Egypt, for instance, the year began with the annual flooding of the Nile, which coincided with the rising of the star Sirius after a 70-day absence. This typically occurred in mid-July and was celebrated 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 honored with feasts and special religious rites.
The Phoenicians and Persians on the other hand began a new year with the spring equinox in March. The Persian New Year is called Nowruz (or Norooz) and is a 13-day spring festival which is believed to have originated as part of the Zoroastrian religion. Although official records of Nowruz did not appear until the 2nd century, most historians believe its celebration dates back at least as far as the 6th century BC. Nowruz traditions, such as bonfires and colored eggs, are still celebrated in Iran and other parts of the Middle East and Asia.
Colored eggs, samani (green sprouting wheat), and sweet pastry for Nowruz Holiday in Azerbaijan. (Ali Safarov /Adobe Stock)
Jewish people celebrate the beginning of a new year in September or October, in observance of the lunisolar Hebrew calendar. Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew for “head of the year”) begins on the first day of Tishri, which is the first month of the calendar’s civil year but the seventh month of its religious year. The earliest reference to Rosh Hashanah in a rabbinic text comes from the Mishnah, a legal text from 200 AD, however the holiday is believed to be much older, perhaps originating in the sixth century BC.
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Today, Rosh Hashanah is both a celebration for the upcoming year and a time to reflect on the past and one’s relationship with God. Jewish people often attend special services at their synagogues and celebrate with meals including a loaf of round challah, apples, and honey. The holiday is also linked to the blasts of the shofar (a trumpet made from a ram or kosher animal’s horn), which regularly sounds in synagogues at this time.
Blowing the shofar. (John Theodor /Adobe Stock)
The Colorful Lunar New Year
The first day of the Lunar New Year, meanwhile, occurs with the second new moon after the winter solstice. Popularly referred to as the Chinese New Year, millions of people across China, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and other countries celebrate this event, which is also called the Spring Festival. 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 China’s New Year’s festivities today.
Akitu - The Earliest Recorded New Year’s Festival
Although the Chinese New Year is ancient, it is not the earliest recorded New Year’s festival – that record dates back to ancient Babylon some 4,000 years ago. It was deeply intertwined with religion and mythology. For the Babylonians of ancient Mesopotamia, the first new moon following the vernal equinox—the day in late March with an equal amount of sunlight and darkness—heralded the start of a new year and represented the rebirth of the natural world.
They marked the occasion with a massive religious festival called Akitu (derived from the Sumerian word for barley, which was cut in the spring) that involved a different ritual on each of its 11 days. During the Akitu, statues of the gods were paraded through the city streets and rituals were enacted to symbolize their victory over the forces of chaos. Through these rituals the Babylonians believed the world was symbolically cleansed and recreated by the gods in preparation for the new year and the return of spring.
In addition to the new year, Atiku celebrated the mythical victory of the Babylonian sky god Marduk over the evil sea goddess Tiamat and it served an important political purpose: it was during this time that a new king was crowned or that the current ruler’s divine mandate was renewed.
Late Assyrian seal. Worshipper between Nabu and Marduk, who is standing on his servant dragon Mušḫuššu. 8th century BC. (The Commons)
One fascinating aspect of the Akitu involved a kind of ritual humiliation endured by the Babylonian king. This peculiar tradition saw the king brought before a statue of the god Marduk, stripped of his royal regalia, slapped, and then dragged by his ears in the hope of making him cry. If royal tears were shed, it was seen as a sign that Marduk was satisfied and had symbolically extended the king’s rule.
Linking the New Year to a Roman God of Change and New Beginnings
The Roman New Year also originally corresponded with the vernal equinox. The early Roman calendar consisted of 10 months and 304 days, with each new year beginning at the vernal equinox. According to tradition, the calendar was created by Romulus, the founder of Rome, in the eighth century BC.
However, over the centuries, the calendar fell out of sync with the sun, and in 46 BC the emperor Julius Caesar decided to solve the problem by consulting with the most prominent astronomers and mathematicians of his time. He introduced the Julian calendar, a solar-based calendar which closely resembles the more modern Gregorian calendar that most countries around the world use today.
As part of his reform, Caesar instituted January 1 as the first day of the year, partly to honor the month’s namesake: Janus, the Roman god of change and beginnings, whose two faces allowed him to look back into the past and forward into the future. This idea became tied to the concept of transition from one year to the next.
Romans would celebrate January 1st by offering sacrifices to Janus in the hope of gaining good fortune for the New Year, decorating their homes with laurel branches, and attending raucous parties. This day was seen as setting the stage for the next 12 months, and it was common for friends and neighbors to make a positive start to the year by exchanging well wishes and gifts of figs and honey with one another.
Medieval Europeans Celebrated the New Year in March
In Medieval Europe, however, the celebrations accompanying the New Year were considered pagan and unchristian-like, and in 567 AD the Council of Tours abolished January 1st as the beginning of the year, replacing it with days carrying more religious significance, such as December 25th or March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation, also called “Lady Day”.
The Feast of the Annunciation is the day to celebrate the event in the Bible when Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary and offered her the opportunity of being mother to Jesus, the Son of God. Mary checked some of the conditions and learned that her virginity would remain intact, so she accepted the holy mission. She instantly became pregnant with the holy child, a decision that would lead to her becoming the most famous woman on Earth.
The Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
March 25 was first adopted as the Feast of the Annunciation around the 4th or 5th centuries. According to the Christian Church, the feast is a celebration of when God entered the human world as his only son, Jesus, in order to save humanity. It’s also a celebration of Mary’s free acceptance of the role of mother to the holy child, signifying humanity’s acceptance of God’s act. The Son of God was to live as a human, and so he would come into the world through the same means as a human. Thus, the date of the Annunciation was set 9 months (a standard human pregnancy term) before the day of Jesus’ birth.
The date of January 1st was also given Christian significance and became known as the Feast of the Circumcision, considered to be the eighth day of Christ's life counting from December 25th, and following the Jewish tradition of circumcision eight days after birth on which the child is formally given his or her name. However, the date of December 25th for the birth of Jesus is debatable.
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A Pope Restored the January 1st Celebration
In 1582, after reform of the Gregorian calendar, Pope Gregory XIII re-established January 1st as New Year’s Day. Although most Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar almost immediately, it was only gradually adopted among Protestant countries. Countries belonging to the Eastern Orthodox Church did not readily adopt the Gregorian calendar either.
The British, for example, did not adopt the reformed calendar until 1752. Until then, the British Empire, and their American colonies, still celebrated the New Year in March!
Top Image: A firework show at the Temple of Dawn in Thailand. Every country and culture has its own New Year’s tradition. Source: nirutft / Adobe Stock
Updated on December 31, 2021.