Learn about how five ancient civilizations celebrated the New Year and their unique customs and traditions.
In ancient Mesopotamia, the Babylonians celebrated a multi-day festival called Akitu in honour of the first new moon after the vernal equinox in late March. These celebrations date back to around 2000 B.C. and were highly influenced by religious and mythological beliefs. During the Akitu, the citizens would parade the statues of their gods through the city streets and perform various rites to symbolize their triumph over chaos. They believed that through these rituals, the gods would purify and recreate the world in preparation for the coming new year and the return of spring.
One exciting aspect of the Akitu was a ritual involving the Babylonian king. In this tradition, the king would stand before a statue of the god Marduk, stripped of his royal garments, and swear that he had ruled the city honourably. A high priest would then slap the king and drag him by his ears in an attempt to make him cry. If the king shed tears, it was seen as a sign that Marduk was pleased and had extended the king’s rule. Some historians argue that these political elements suggest the monarchy used the Akitu to reaffirm the king’s divine power over his subjects.
Ancient Roman Celebration of Janus
The Roman New Year was originally celebrated during the vernal equinox. However, years of altering the solar calendar resulted in the holiday being established on January 1, which is more familiar today. For the Romans, January was significant because it was named after Janus, the two-faced god of change and beginnings. Janus was believed to symbolically look back at the old and forward to the new, and this idea became associated with transitioning from one year to the next.
On January 1, Romans would honour Janus by offering gifts in hopes of receiving good fortune for the new year. This day was viewed as setting the tone for the next twelve months, so friends and neighbours often exchanged well wishes and presents of figs and honey to start the year on a positive note. According to the poet Ovid, most Romans also opted to work at least part of New Year’s Day, as idleness was thought to bring bad luck for the rest of the year.
Ancient Egyptian Wepet Renpet
The ancient Egyptian civilization was closely linked to the Nile River, and their New Year coincided with its annual flood. According to the Roman writer Censorinus, the Egyptian New Year was predicted when Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, became visible again after being absent for 70 days. This phenomenon typically occurred in mid-July, just before the annual inundation of the Nile River, which helped ensure that farmlands remained fertile for the coming year. Egyptians celebrated this new beginning with a festival called Wepet Renpet, which translates to “opening of the year.” The New Year was seen as a time of rebirth and rejuvenation, and it was commemorated with feasts and special religious rites.
Similar to many people today, the Egyptians may have also used this as an excuse for indulging in alcohol. Recent discoveries at the Temple of Mut reveal that during the reign of Hatshepsut, the first month of the year hosted a “Festival of Drunkenness.” This massive party was linked to the myth of Sekhmet, a war goddess who had planned to slaughter all of humanity until the sun god Ra tricked her into drinking herself unconscious. In honour of humanity’s salvation, the Egyptians would celebrate with music, sex, revelry, and, perhaps most importantly, beer.
Lunar New Year
Lunar New Year, also known as Chinese New Year, is one of today’s oldest traditions. It is believed to have originated over 3,000 years ago during the Shang Dynasty. The holiday was initially a way of celebrating the new beginnings of the spring planting season, but it later became entwined with myth and legend. According to one famous tale, a bloodthirsty creature called Nian - now means “year” in Chinese - attacked villages every New Year. The villagers then started to decorate their homes with red trimmings, burn bamboo and make loud noises to frighten the beast. This ruse worked, and the bright colours and lights associated with scaring off Nian eventually integrated into the celebration.
Festivities typically last 15 days and centre around the home and the family. People clean their houses to rid them of bad luck and repay old debts to settle the previous year’s affairs. In addition, they decorate their doors with paper scrolls and gather with relatives for a feast to encourage a promising start to the year. After the invention of gunpowder in the 10th century, the Chinese were also the first to ring in the New Year with fireworks.
Lunar New Year is still based on a lunar calendar that dates back to the second millennium B.C. As a result, the holiday typically falls in late January or early February on the second new moon after the winter solstice. Each year is associated with one of 12 zodiacal animals: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.
Nowruz, also known as “New Day”, is a 13-day spring festival celebrated in Iran and other parts of the Middle East and Asia. It is believed to have originated in modern-day Iran as part of the Zoroastrian religion and is celebrated on or around the vernal equinox in March. While official records of Nowruz only appeared in the 2nd century, historians believe that its celebration dates back at least as far as the 6th century B.C. and the rule of the Achaemenid Empire.
The ancient observances of Nowruz focused on the rebirth that accompanied the return of spring. Monarchs used the holiday to host lavish banquets, dispense gifts, and hold audiences with their subjects. Other traditions included feasts, exchanging presents with family members and neighbours, lighting bonfires, dyeing eggs, and sprinkling water to symbolize creation. One unique ritual that arose around the 10th century involved electing a “Nowruzian Ruler”: a commoner who would pretend to be king for several days before being “dethroned” near the end of the festival.
Nowruz has evolved considerably over time, but many of its ancient traditions—particularly the use of bonfires and coloured eggs—remain a part of the modern holiday, observed by an estimated 300 million people each year.