Seeing in the New Year seems to be one of our best loved and most popular public holidays, marked with breath-taking firework displays as the stroke of midnight enters different time zones around the world.
It seems the most natural thing in the world to usher in the New Year with festivity and merriment. Yet I always wondered why the evening prior was considered more important than the actual day itself. Considering that our ancient ancestors began their day at sunset, it seemed a distinctly pagan thing to do, and so naturally, I wondered about its origins.
It seems the earliest people to celebrate new year were the Mesopotamians of Babylon, in what is now known as Iraq, around 2000BC, only it wasn’t in January, but in mid-March at the time of the vernal equinox (when day and night are of equal length; vernal denotes Spring.).
It certainly makes more sense to me, that the beginning of the New Year should start at Spring.
The Babylonians celebrated with a religious festival called Akitu which lasted eleven days. Atiku also commemorated the victory of the Babylonian sky god Marduk over the evil sea goddess Tiamat.
They are also credited with establishing the custom of making new year resolutions; apparently, they made promises to their gods, such as repaying their debts and returning borrowed tools, in order to earn the gods’ favour in the coming year.
In contrast, the Egyptians began their new year around mid July, when the Nile was prone to flooding, which ensured the fertility of the land, and the star Sirius was rising after its seventy day absence. They called their festival Wepet Renpet, which means “the opening of the year”.
They weren’t the only ones; the Phoenicians and Persians began their new year at the autumn equinox, while the Greeks celebrated at the winter solstice. The first day of the Chinese new year began on the second moon after the winter solstice.
This all sounds very confusing; how is it that we have now come to celebrate the New Year in the middle of winter at the beginning of January?
Well originally, there never even used to be a month of January… or February, for that matter! The early Roman calender, which according to mythology, was created by Romulus, Rome’s founder, in the C8th BC, only had ten months and 304 days, and began with March.
The evidence for this can be seen in some of the names of our months; for example, September, which is our 9th month, comes from the Latin septem, meaning 7; October derives from octo, which is 8; novem is 9, and decem is 10.
Around 700 BC, Numa Pontilius, second King of Rome added the months of January and February to the calender.
The first month, January, was named after the god of gates, doors and beginnings, Janus. He was said to have had two faces, one which looked forward into the future, and one which looked back into the past. He was thus the perfect deity to dedicate the first day of the New Year to, and so it was that the celebration switched to the first day of the new calender.
Romans would celebrate by making offerings to Janus in the hope of gaining good fortune for the new year. Well wishes and gifts including items such as figs and honey would be exchanged. According to the poet Ovid, most Romans would work for part of the day, as idleness was seen as a bad omen for the rest of the year.
However, as time passed, the calendar fell out of sync with the sun, and in 46 B.C. the emperor Julius Caesar decided to take matters into his own hands. He invented his own Julian calender, in which he added 90 days to the original, thus realigning the calender with the sun.
Celebrating the new year was seen as pagan and un-Christian across medieval Europe, so much so that in 567 the Council of Tours abolished January 1 as the beginning of the year.
In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII abandoned the traditional Julian calendar. By the Julian reckoning, the solar year comprised 365.25 days, and the introduction of a leap day every four years was intended to keep the calendar and the seasons aligned.
Now here’s the science part; the solar year is actually 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds = 365.2422 days), and this miscalculation caused the Julian calendar to slip behind the seasons about one day per century.
Pope Gregory corrected this by advancing the calendar 10 days. The change was made the day after October 4, 1582, and the following day was established as October 15, 1582.
Weird, huh? Everyone got ten days older overnight! Especially as the actual difference by then was fourteen days and not ten. But he was the Pope, and I guess he had his reasons; something to do with the meeting of the Council of Nicaea, which took place over a thousand years earlier.
Most Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar at once, but not all. The British Empire, for example, still celebrated the new year in March until 1752 AD.
Those who consider themselves ‘true’ Christians do not, apparently, celebrate New Year, because it is not ordered by God in the bible. They blame early Roman Christian leaders for being unable to stamp out the mid-winter festival of Saturnalia, and simply adopting and adapting it into Christian doctrine as the celebration of the birth of Jesus, and the twelve days of Christmas. Interestingly, nine months ahead of December 25th, Jesus’s birthday brings us to round about the Spring equinox in March, the new year celebration which was adopted as the Christian date of the Immaculate Conception; March 25th is called the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and celebrates the the Archangel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she was about to become the mother of Jesus.
In Ireland, of course, the New Year was not celebrated by our ancient ancestors in March, or in January, but at the end of October, and was known as Samhain. This festival was taken over by the Church, and over time blended with All Souls Day and All Saints Day to become what we know and love today as Halloween. You can read more about Samhain in my post, Samhain, the Original Halloween.
Around the world
Ethiopia New Year is called Enkutatash and is celebrated on September 11. Ethiopia uses its own ancient calendar based on the Julian calendar. The new year begins at the end of the summer rainy season.
China New Year is celebrated on the first day of the lunar calendar and is corrected for the solar every three years, (please don’t ask me, I cannot explain!) falling between January 20 and February 20. It is celebrated with food, families, lucky money in red envelopes, lion and dragon dances, drums, and fireworks.
Wales In the Gwaun Valley, Pembrokeshire, the new year is known as Hen Galan, and is celebrated on January 13, based on the Julian calendar. The Calennig, gifts of small copper coins were given to children.
Arabia New Year in Islam is called Ras as-Sanah al-Hijriyah. It moves from year to year because the Islamic calendar is lunar based. The first day of the year is observed on the first day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar.
Israel Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is celebrated by Jews in Israel and throughout the world. The date is not set according to the Gregorian calendar, but falls during September or October, and is celebrated by religious services and special meals.
India In Hinduism, different regions celebrate new year at different times. In Assam, Bengal, Kerala, Nepal, Orissa, Punjab and Tamil Nadu, the new year is celebrated when the Sun enters Aries on the Hindu calendar, normally April 14 or April 15. Elsewhere, the Vikram Samvat calendar is followed, when new year’s day is on the first day of the Chaitra month, which is the first month of the Hindu calendar, first fortnight and first day. Falling around the Spring equinox, it is celebrated by paying respect to elders in the family and seeking their blessings, and exchanging good wishes for a healthy and prosperous year ahead.
Scotland The Scots are famous for celebrating Hogmanay on New Years Eve, which was anciently celebrated by the lighting of huge bonfires, rolling blazing tar barrels down hill and tossing torches. Animal hide was wrapped around sticks and lit; the smoke produced was thought to be very effective in warding off evil spirits. This smoking stick was known as a Hogmanay.