The Ancient Babylonians Invented New Year’s Resolutions!

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.

71 Comments on “The Ancient Babylonians Invented New Year’s Resolutions!

  1. fantastic post Ali!! Oh I remember hogmanay!! My mom was big on that lol!! wonderful history and I love your image!! Happy New Year!!


  2. Fantastic post, Ali. I would have commented earlier, but I was trying to celebrate all of the new years simultaneously. I now feel at one with the world, but I have absolutely no idea what day it is. 😉

    Happy New Year!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The Ancient Babylonians Invented New Year’s Resolutions! | oshriradhekrishnabole

  4. Reblogged this on BOOK CHAT and commented:
    Have you ever wondered why the first day of the new year is on January 1st? Do you make New Year’s Resolutions? Do you know how that custom got started? Ali at aliisaacstoryteller has done the research for you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Really enjoyed all this. Thanks for pulling the information all together.
    Oddly, I’ve always felt at odds with the holiday/year designation – end of October has always seemed like when a new year starts to me. Maybe there’s cell memory or tapping universal mind or something.
    No matter the group, people need celebrations
    Hope your new year is full of grand adventures, time for laughter, and much delight


  6. Loved this look at the New Year ~ and all the differences and very logical reason for each different area. Part of me agrees that the beginning of the New Year should start at Spring, it makes so much sense. In China, they call their New Year the Spring Festival, but as you note it takes place between mid-January to mid-February and this was because it was the slowest time for an agricultural society, so people could gather with family. I love learning more about life via other cultures…this is such a fascinating post 🙂

    And now is the perfect time to wish you and your incredible family a New Year with the happiest and healthiest times ahead. Cheers ~


  7. Whoa. That is so much fascinating information! I’d never ever picked up on the names of months – October having octo for 8, etc. It all makes sense now. It’s also interesting to think how many radically different celebrations there are around the world. Starting the New Year in spring does seem to make a lot more sense. Although I am now accustomed to celebrating it with snow (not that this has ever happened in England).
    Happy New Year, in passing! xxx


  8. Wow, what interesting stuff, Ali. I’ve heard about the Welsh one. In fact, I’m pretty sure they also celebrate Christmas Day on January 6th because their calendar is twelve days behind the rest of the UK. That must cause so much confusion, but I guess comes with its advantages when the Boxing Day sales start!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Well I knew it was confused but blimey what a mess. Maybe that’s why people get drunk at new year? Here’s hoping yours is splendid Ali!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Another wonderfully informative post, Ali! It’s amazing sometimes how we take so much that we do for granted, not questioning what lies beneath. Time really is just a construct, isn’t it? I hope you’re having a Happy New Year’s Eve, and here’s to a bright and exciting 2016! Look forward to seeing you in June (not so far away) xx 🙂 (and yay, looks like I’m not spam anymore too)


  11. Pingback: Great New Year Read! | Coloring Outside the Lines

  12. Great read! I love all the history. It’s amazing how every culture has it own unique “new years day”. Almost sad to see glitzy celebration across the world for a day they might not recognize. I hope you don’t mind a reblog here.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Fascinating, Ali! Happy Hogmanay to you and yours. As usual we are going to a Scottish friend’s house where we listen to the bells tolling on the radio from Scotland then we toast the old country at 6 pm CST in Texas. That means we can all go to bed at a sensible time… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Pingback: Head Above Water | Facets of a Muse

  15. We were just saying this morning, as we wet off into the thick of the 31st food-buying frenzy, that it really is a pretty ludicrous thing we’re embarking on. There is no valid sensible reason for saying that today is the last day of the year and tomorrow the first. What’s wrong with celebrating the solstice and the lengthening of the days again?

    Liked by 1 person

  16. What a fascinating read, Ali. You provide the best information in your blog. Thank you for that, always. And a most Happy New Year to you, no matter when/how you celebrate. ☺ Always a fan. 💖


  17. Reblogged this on The Sound of What Happens and commented:

    This is a wonderfully informative and interesting post by Ali Isaac about the celebration of the new year around the world.
    This is a wonderfully informative and interesting post by Ali Isaac about the ways in which the new year is celebrated around the world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry for the weird duplication, Ali, for some reason I couldn’t read anything I was typing when I reblogged your post. It’s an awesome post, thanks for sharing all that fascinating information. It really makes you realize how arbitrary our divisions of time are, doesn’t it? Like you, the new year always feels like it occurs at Samhain, but I celebrate it again in January anyway. 🙂 So, have a very happy start to 2016!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Don’t worry Éilis! That’s one of the wonders of modern technology, sometimes those pesky little gremlins find a way in! Thanks for re-blogging. 😊

        Liked by 1 person

  18. Excellent summary of new year celebrations around the globe, and the evolution of calendar from ten to twelve months, followed by refinements thereof. The city of Cochin, where I am, is located in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Apparently the Irish new year is already behind you, Ali, whereas the Gregorian one is still ahead; so here is wishing you and family an immensely rewarding 2016…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Raj! So you live in Kerala? I hear it is particularly beautiful part of India. If I ever came to India I would have to stay for years, not weeks… so much to see and experience! If you celebrate New Year, I hope it is filled with peace and happiness for you and all your family and friends.

      Liked by 1 person

    • We take so much or granted don’t we? Then we dig a little deeper and find that nothing is what it seems. Sometimes it feels to me like our very existence is just founded on lies, but that’s perhaps when I’m feeling a little melodramatic! 😁😂😄 A very Happy New Year to you and yours!


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