What is the history of New Year celebrations?
New Year celebrations, in typical years, often involves large gatherings of friends and family and a time to look forward to the future, particularly if a year was difficult. Celebrations of New Year have occurred for millennia, even when New Year's Day occurred at different times than January 1st. Nevertheless, even as the date has changed, looking forward to a New Year has not.
Earliest New Year Celebrations Recorded
The earliest evidence of celebrations for New Year occurred from southern Mesopotamia, in the early 3rd millennium BCE. The month of Bara-zag-ǧar, which corresponds to the vernal equinox and when the first full moon occurred (around early April), was seen as the beginning of the year. This celebration not only corresponded with the equinox but was also a critical time for the development of crops that were growing and harvest prior to the hot summer months (the harvest being in June). Later, festivities were taken up by the Akitu festival, which became the official name for the celebrations that lasted 12 days. The main celebration evolved, by the 2nd millennium BCE, to focus on the god Marduk's victory over Tiamat, who was a goddess associated with chaos. The celebrations included a parade with the king involved. For ancient Egypt, New Year's Day was on September 11, which also revolved around agricultural cycles, in this case the beginning of the agricultural year. Records indicate by the 3rd millennium BCE, Egyptians would gather, likely with friends and families, have parades, and hold gatherings to give thanks, and pray for the Nile's continual flow to support the future harvest. The celebrations often were associated with the Wepet-Renpet Festival, signaled also by the star Sirius being bright in the night sky that time of year.
For some of the ancient Greek cultures, the Attic calendar was followed and the beginning of the year was often the first new moon after the summer solstice. There were no formal celebrations at the beginning of the New Year but important festivals were held in the Greek New Year month, including Hekatombaion and Panathenaea, which celebrated Apollo and Athena in Athens. These celebrations would include games, with wide participation by slaves and freed people, and various gatherings both in private residences and in public. There would also be musical contests, games and contests, and sacrifices to honor the gods, while processions for the gods would be given that would involve communities.
The ancient Roman calendar originally only had ten months, but by 8th century BCE the early Roman king Numa Pontilius added the months that became January and February in our calendar. Originally, the Roman New Year's Day was in March, similar to ancient Mesopotamia in using the vernal equinox to mark the New Year. However, by 45 BCE the Romans decided to reform their civil calendar, under Julius Caesar, and New Year's Day was permanently moved to January 1st. This was initially so it would correspond to the beginning of the tenure for the two Roman consuls, when it was first moved to January 1st in the 2nd century BCE, but it was only during the Julian reforms that January 1st became firmly established as the beginning of the year. The Roman tradition after the Julian reforms were made included giving sacrifices to the god Janus, with January named after him, giving gifts to others, and even decorating homes with laurel. The Romans, of course, loved to have raucous parties and many events often involving heavy wine drinking, with lavish parties given by wealthy Romans in their homes. This was the case on New Year's Eve, although officially New Year's Day was also a time to look forward to the New Year and asking for good tidings by honoring Janus. However, by the time Christianity was adopted widely in Europe in the early Medieval period, traditions of celebrating New Year with parties and gifts were disregarded, as they were seen as pagan and associated with the ancient gods. New Year's Day, eventually, was seen not as a holiday but was simply acknowledged without any great celebration. In fact, in some European countries New Year's Day began to be associated with Christmas, on December 25th, as that day gained more celebratory importance. New Year's Day was even in dispute, as the Julian Calendar began to create problems as to what day the calendar was actually on. Reforms were needed to the Julian Calendar and the Gregorian Calendar became adopted. Not all countries adopted this in Europe, particularly after the Protestant and Catholic schism that occurred in the 16th century prevented widespread acceptance of the calendar. Eventually, and by the 18th century, most countries in Western Europe and North and South America adopted January 1st in the Gregorian Calendar as the official New Year's Day.
Modern New Year's Eve in the West and Other Celebrations
By 1800, people began to traditionally stay up until about midnight to see the New Year arrive. This became common in households across Europe and North America, including having gatherings with family and friends to see the New Year. These gatherings would also involve sometimes heavy drinking. In the 19th century, specifically in 1878 in Britain, St Paul’s Cathedral was installed with new bells, where crowds gathered on New Year's Eve and celebrated the ringing of the bells for the first time. Over time, this tradition became more of an interest to the public, as the bells were rung on New Year's Eve. In subsequent years, more people gathered, often heavy drinking was associated with such gatherings and many, once again, began to object to such overt acts of celebration. What this did, however, is instill the idea that public events and parties could be held to celebrate the New Year. Elsewhere, in Scotland and also those who came from Scotland in the United States, the old Scottish poem 'Auld Lang Syne', which has the well-known lyrics 'should old acquaintance be forgot', developed from a well known Scottish poem in the 18th century and was transcribed by Robert Burns. This poem began to be associated with New Year's Day by the mid-19th century as people began to sing it in different gatherings, often at home, on New Year's Eve. The idea was people would gather with friends and family and sing the song to remember others and look forward towards meeting in the future. This tradition was carried out by those with Scottish ancestry but in the United States it began to be associated with New Year's Eve celebrations more broadly after it was played on the radio on December 31st, 1929 for the first time. Traditions in the United States also emerged from the New York Times beginning a pattern of holding a large party in 1904 for staff in what was known as Longacre Square (renamed Times Square). This party became well known and in subsequent years it was held not only for staff of the well known paper but its popularity spread and New York city adopted it as its official New Year's Eve celebrations. In 1907, when the city of New York banned fireworks, an electrician devised the idea of a 700 pound illuminated ball to drop on midnight, beginning that traditions that still occurs. Since that time, New York became inspirational to how New Years parties and events developed throughout the country. Many towns later adopted similar traditions or evolved them from how New York held its New Year's Eve celebrations in the early 20th century. Other traditions also evolved with celebratory meals on New Year's Day. Pork, for instance, became a popular food for many European descendants on New Year's Day because it was seen a prosperous food and was intended to symbolize prosperity in the New Year. Newspapers also in the early 20th century began to reflect on the year around December and publications would often lead up to New Year's Day with a focus on key events that shaped the year.
Throughout the world, there are many different New Year's Eve or Day celebrations, including different days depending on which calendar is followed. Calendars in the Middle East are still somewhat influenced by the ancient cultures there, with the holiday Nowruz celebrating the New Year in the March vernal equinox on the 20th/21st of March in places such as Iran and Kurdish regions. Diwali is a Hindu holiday celebrated in mid-October to mid-November and it celebrates the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance. In many ways, it is similar to how Marduk overcame Tiamat in the Mesopotamian tradition. For Hindus today, the celebration includes fireworks to symbolize the victory by light. For the Chinese New Year, it traditionally begins between 21 January and 20 February depending on the new moon during that time. Similar to more ancient New Year traditions, it was a time to celebrate different gods to bring good luck in the harvest and year, while the dead ancestors were also celebrated and often prayed for. Many countries in Asia, in fact, often use two calendars, with one being the traditional, often lunar or lunar-solar calendar used to celebrate New Year's Day at different times. On the other hand, many Asian countries also celebrate January 1st as the civil calendar New Year's Day.
Many cultures have a variety of ways to celebrate the New Year. In the West, celebrations have, over the last 150 years, developed around parties or gatherings at specific places such as Saint Paul's cathedral or what became Times Square. These events influenced other parties and gatherings as Western societies slowly secularized their celebrations during the 19th and 20th century. In Asian and non-Western states, many traditions go back centuries or longer, with traditional calendars still used to mark the holiday. Even in countries that have monotheistic faiths, ancient calendars that celebrated the gods are still used. In many of these traditions, similar to the West, gatherings of families and friends is common, with remembrances of those lost as well as others often a key theme in gatherings. Foods and celebrations were often about also looking forward to the New Year and hoping it will be better than the last. In many ways, this is similar to some of the earliest New Year celebrations that looked forward to a bountiful harvest and prosperity in the New Year.
- For more on these early celebrations, see: Brandon, S.G.F., 2014. Beliefs, rituals, and symbols of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Fertile Crescent, First edition ed, (Man, myth, and magic). Cavendish Square, New York.
- For more on the ancient Greek calendar and celebrations near the time of New Year, see: Versnel, H.S., 1992. Inconsistencies in Greek and Roman religion. Volume 2, Volume 2,. E.J. Brill, Leiden; New York.
- For more on how the date of January 1st evolved into New Year's Day and celebrations associated with this, see: Hannah, R., 2005. Greek and Roman calendars: constructions of time in the classical world. Duckworth, London.
- For more on how Anglo-American traditions for New Year's Eve and Day evolved, see: Blocker, J.S., Fahey, D.M., Tyrrell, I.R. (Eds.), 2003. Alcohol and temperance in modern history: an international encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, Calif.
- For more on New Year's Day celebrations worldwide, see: Crump, W.D., 2008. Encyclopedia of New Year’s holidays worldwide. McFarland & Co, Jefferson, N.C.