Origins of Our New Year’s Celebrations
by Kat Kent, Dec 29, 2016
This year, my family and I will spend New Years Eve and New Years Day celebrating the coming year with champagne and ritual meals that our families have enjoyed for decades. We will begin at the stroke of midnight, on December 31 with a ritual kiss and a toast to the New Year. We will watch a film of the big ball drop in Times Square which will have happened an hour before in a different time zone, but will be replayed in our area as our clocks hit the magic hour. We won’t be attending the typical array of parties this year, but we plan on attending the local fireworks display earlier in the evening. And on January 1st, we will share our traditional family dinner, as we would never think of starting the year without eating black-eyed peas and cabbage for “luck” simply because we have adhered to this superstition all our lives, never really questioning where it came from.
Is this year end holiday like others with origins steeped in religion, or more tied to the pagan rituals celebrating the change in the season itself?
Surprisingly, the earliest celebrations of New Years Day did not take place on January 1st. The months of January and February did not yet exist. The New Year was considered to begin on the day of the vernal equinox, or the day with equal amounts of daylight and dark. This would have been in late March under our current calendar.
The Babylonians, over 4000 years ago, marked the occasion with the religious festival of Akitu. It was celebrated on the first new moon following the vernal equinox. An 11 day festival of reflection of the prior year and the rebirth of the earth in the new year, it was widely popular. Each day, a different ritual would be observed. Parades representing the various gods were daily occurrences on the streets, symbolizing the gods victories over chaos and cleansing the world. One particular sky god, Marduk, and his victory over the sea goddess, Tiamet, was recreated marking the day that a new divine king would take power, or the renewal of the current kings reign. The Babylonian king himself participated in this symbolic ritual of humiliation, where he would be taken before a statue of Marduk, and stripped of his royal garments. After the High Priest slapped and dragged him by his ears, Marduk would give the King the thumbs up if he cried.
It was in this time and place that the various superstitions surrounding the holiday were born. One common superstition surrounded the balance of items leaving and coming into the house. If you had to remove anything from the home, something else must takes its place. One should also avoid doing laundry, paying bills, or breaking anything.
The Roman New Year was also originally celebrated on the vernal equinox, but was celebrated on January 1st for the first time in 153bce. In 46bce, upon the adoption of the Julian calendar, Julius Caesar officially changed the date to January 1st, and all of Rome adopted the new date. New Years celebrations in Rome honored the Roman god of change and beginnings, Janus. They decorated their homes with greenery and held and attended parties with their friends and neighbors. Exchanging well wishes and gifts of figs and honey became a popular pastime, as did the drinking that to this day marks the holiday. No quarrels were allowed and adherents abstained from sin, which evidently did not include drinking! Animal sacrifices to Janus were offered in order to gain good fortune for the coming year. The New Year was seen to be the harvest to be reaped from the actions sown in the previous year.
Rome was not the only ancient society to adopt the holiday. The Persians also claimed the vernal equinox as the holiday, while the Greeks celebrated on the winter solstice. The Egyptians marked the New Year as beginning after the flooding of the Nile River, which corresponded with the star Sirius beginning it’s rise in the sky in mid July. Their celebration was a festival known as Wepet Renpet, which means “the opening of the year”. This later evolved in to the “Festival of Drunkenness”, honoring the myth of Sekhmet, a war goddess who had planned to kill all of humanity until the sun god Ra tricked her into drinking herself unconscious. Egyptians celebrated by exchanging gifts, and agonizing about who would be flooded out. It was believed that the god Khon, just before the flooding occurred, would write “The Book of the End of the Year”, that contained a list of who would live and die in the coming year. Priests sold magic spells, written on strips of papyrus and worn around the neck, that promised to protect wearers from death.
In Iran and the middle east, the Persian New Year was called Nowruz. Dating back to the 6th century BCE, it is a 13 day festival on or around the vernal equinox, believed to have originated with the Zoroastrian religion. It is the celebration of the spirit of the sun, who has returned to earth bringing the spring season. A few days before the celebration begins, a special cover is spread over the eating area in the household. The ceremonial cover is called “the cloth of the seven dishes” or “sofreh”. The seven dishes represent the seven “angels” of life-rebirth, health, happiness, prosperity, joy, patience, and beauty. Other items are placed on the cloth which represent other mystical “blessings” such as fertility, magical cleansing powers, and the warding off of evil spirits. Candles representing enlightenment and happiness are also included. Nowruz is still celebrated today by approximately 3oo million people in the same region.
The Chinese celebrated on the second new moon after the winter solstice. The Chinese celebration is centered on family unity. Traditional rituals of the festival include eating dinner with family, giving red envelopes filled with money, firecrackers, and red decorations everywhere. In large cities, there will be dragon and lion parades, where large sized puppets are carried through the streets and participate in ritual dances.
While these celebrations happened at differing times, the traditions and rituals were symbolically the same.
New Year’s and the Roman Catholic Church
In 567ce, the medieval Roman Catholic Church, through the Council of Tours, prohibited the celebration of New Years Day on January 1st, replacing the day with other religious ceremonies held on various days. March 25th celebrated the “Feast of the Annunciation” or “Lady Day”. This celebration was later replaced by the “Feast of Circumcision”, and the holiday moved to the anniversary of the 8th day of Jesus life after his birth on December 25. Of course, December 25th was the date chosen to coincide with pagan ceremonies, and admittedly not the date of any real birth. This holiday followed the Jewish tradition of circumcision 8 days after birth when the child is given his name. Roman Catholics also celebrated the “Solemnity of Mary”, a festival honoring “Mary, the mother of God”.
In 1582, after the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, Pope Gregory XIII declared that the holiday would once again be celebrated on January 1st, where it has remained to this day. However, not everyone was quick to adopt the Gregorian date. The British Empire, including the American colonies continued to celebrate the holiday in late March until 1752.
Eventually, in the 20th century, the holiday separated from it’s common association with religion and became it’s own celebration of reflecting on the prior year and celebrating the beginning of a new year. Technology brought us fireworks, and later light and laser shows, as well as the “dropping of the ball” in Times Square and elaborate fireworks displays in other major cities in the world. It seems the holiday rituals have returned to their pagan roots, and it remains all inclusive.
In 2016, December 31 falls on a Saturday, which is a blessing to many of us. Sunday is a great day for a hangover! Most Christians will celebrate in the same way as all pagans. Watching football games will be a big part of the ritual, as will be a family dinner and more drinking. This is a time to celebrate, to cut loose and take advantage of the lack of work to do for a couple of days. Renewal is right around the corner, and each new year brings hope and wishes for a better future. The year 2017 has already proven to be in need of those hopes and wishes. In that light, I want to wish all of our readers Best Wishes for a Happy New Year with all the hopes that your families will prosper and remain healthy and safe!