There’s always been an inherent symbolism in the conception of the New Year. As we pass from the old year to the next, we celebrate what has been and what is yet to come. The New Year celebrations, we know now have evolved, and some of our traditions have fascinating origins. So, as we come to the end of what is universally considered a horrendous year and hope for a happier 2021, there’s no better time to look at the history of our New Year.
Festivals and celebrations marking the beginning of the calendar have been around for thousands of years, with the earliest recorded festivity dating back 4,000 years to ancient Babylon. In some cases, these were linked to agricultural or astronomical events.
For the ancient Celts, a new year was begun with fire, as they believed light and life sprang from death and darkness. Smoke was also believed to ward off evil spirits. In Egypt, the year began with the annual flooding of the Nile, the Greeks celebrated it on the winter solstice, and the first day of the Chinese New Year occurred with the second new moon after the winter solstice.
The poem is typically associated with the Scottish poet Robert Burns
New Year wasn’t celebrated in January until 153 BC in Rome, and it would be almost 2,000 years before Britain did the same. Starting the New Year in January was partially done to honour the god Janus, after whom the month was named. Janus had two faces, and he was, therefore, able to look back into the past and forward into the future simultaneously, evoking both our traditions to reflect on the year that has passed and our hopes for the next one.
Romans would celebrate by offering sacrifices to Janus in the hope of gaining good fortune for the New Year, decorating their homes with laurel branches and exchanging well wishes and gifts of figs and honey with one another.
In medieval Europe, the celebrations accompanying the New Year were considered pagan and unchristian, and so the 1 January date was abolished by the Council of Tours in 567 AD, replaced with more religiously significant dates like 25 December or 25 March. Come 1572, Pope Gregory introduced the Gregorian calendar to establish a little more consistency around Easter, and it firmly established 1 January as New Year’s Day.
Citizens made spoken resolutions during their New Year festival in March
Catholic countries were on board, but Britain, which was Protestant at the time, held out until 1752 when it finally switched for trading purposes. Before this, the British Empire and their American colonies still celebrated the New Year in March.
As the time runs down on the year, you may find yourself trying to sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ – supposedly, one of the most popular songs no-one actually knows the words to. The poem is typically associated with the Scottish poet Robert Burns, who recorded it on paper in 1788. Burns claimed he transcribed the words from an old man singing, and it is a much older folk song whose nostalgic lyrics perfectly capture the mood of the transition. Its status as a New Year’s song actually comes from 1929, when the Guy Lombardo orchestra played it at a hotel in New York.
Perhaps you may consider making a New Year’s resolution. This tradition dates back to Ancient Babylonia, where citizens made spoken resolutions during their New Year festival in March. These resolutions were not for self-improvement – it was required to make an oath to the sitting king, and these were considered essential to keep the kingdom in the gods’ favour.
New Year’s traditions differ around the world
The Romans had a similar tradition of swearing an oath of loyalty to the emperor and, by the 1740s, the Methodist church began holding renewal services on 31 December, which offered people a chance to look back at the year and renew their commitment to God.
New Year’s traditions differ around the world. In Brazil, it is considered unlucky to eat chicken in the first few minutes of the year – as chickens scratch the Earth backwards, consuming poultry means going backwards in life. Italians are supposed to reserve some of their wine grapes from the harvest to consume on New Year’s Eve, which means they’ll be frugal and financially savvy. The Spanish have a similar grape tradition – in the first 12 seconds of the New Year, you eat 12 grapes, which symbolise 12 lucky months ahead. If you eat all 12 before the 12th toll of a famous clock tower, you’ll have good luck all year.
There are so many traditions and superstitions surrounding New Year because it’s a time of transition, and not knowing what will come next, and these habits offer some form of reassurance. Whatever you wind up doing, and wherever you do it, may your traditions and customs bring you a happy New Year!