For over 4000 years, civilisations worldwide have celebrated the beginning of each new year. Nowadays, most New Year’s festivities start on December 31, also known as New Year’s Eve, which is the last day of the Gregorian calendar. These celebrations continue into the early hours of January 1, New Year’s Day. Some popular traditions include attending parties, eating exceptional New Year’s food, making resolutions for the new year, and watching fireworks displays.
Without a doubt, ancient New Year’s celebrations were a significant part of the cultural traditions of many societies.
The earliest documented celebrations to welcome a new year date back around 4,000 years to ancient Babylon. For the Babylonians, the beginning of a new year was marked by the first new moon following the vernal equinox, which is the day in late March with an equal amount of sunlight and darkness. This was celebrated with a grand religious festival called Akitu, which lasted 11 days and included different rituals each day.
Akitu celebrated the new year and commemorated the mythical triumph of the Babylonian sky god Marduk over the evil sea goddess Tiamat. It also served as an important political event, as it was during this time that a new king was crowned or the current ruler’s divine authority was symbolically renewed.
Throughout history, various civilisations developed more sophisticated calendars, typically linking the first day of the year to an agricultural or astronomical event. For instance, in Egypt, the year started with the annual flooding of the Nile, which coincided with the rising of the star Sirius. Meanwhile, the Lunar New Year’s first day occurred with the second new moon after the winter solstice.
Did you know: In 46 B.C., Julius Caesar added 90 extra days to realign the Roman calendar with the sun when he introduced his new Julian calendar.
On January 1, the day becomes recognised as New Year’s Day.
In the eighth century BC, Romulus, the founder of Rome, created the early Roman calendar, consisting of 10 months and 304 days. Each new year, we start at the vernal equinox. Later, in the seventh century BC, Numa Pompilius added the months of Januarius and Februarius.
Over time, the calendar became out of sync with the sun, and in 46 BC, Julius Caesar consulted with prominent astronomers and mathematicians of his time to solve the problem. He introduced the Julian calendar, similar to the Gregorian calendar that most countries use today.
As part of his reform, Caesar made January 1 the first day of the year to honour Janus, the Roman god of beginnings. Janus was depicted with two faces, one looking back into the past and the other looking forward into the future. On this day, Romans celebrated by offering sacrifices to Janus, exchanging gifts with one another, and decorating their homes with laurel branches. They also attended raucous parties.
In medieval Europe, Christian leaders temporarily replaced January 1 as the first day of the year with days of religious significance, such as December 25 (the anniversary of Jesus’ birth) and March 25 (the Feast of the Annunciation). However, Pope Gregory XIII reestablished January 1 as New Year’s Day in 1582.
Celebrating New Year’s Around The World
In numerous countries, the New Year’s festivities begin on December 31, also known as New Year’s Eve, and continue into the early hours of January 1. During this time, people enjoy meals and snacks that are believed to bring good luck for the upcoming year. For instance, in Spain and some other Spanish-speaking countries, individuals consume a dozen grapes just before midnight, representing their hopes for the months ahead.
In many parts of the world, traditional New Year’s dishes feature legumes, which are believed to resemble coins and thus signify future financial success. Examples of such dishes include lentils in Italy and black-eyed peas in the southern United States. Additionally, pork is often served on New Year’s Eve in certain cultures, such as Cuba, Austria, Hungary, and Portugal, because pigs represent progress and prosperity. Finally, in the Netherlands, Mexico, Greece, and other countries, ring-shaped cakes and pastries symbolise that the year has come full circle. In Sweden and Norway, rice pudding with a hidden almond is served on New Year’s Eve, as it is believed that whoever finds the almond can expect good fortune for the next 12 months.
In many English-speaking countries, customs are observed worldwide to welcome the new year, such as watching fireworks and singing songs like the famous “Auld Lang Syne”. Making resolutions for the new year is believed to have originated from the ancient Babylonians, who made promises at the start of the year to earn the gods’ favour. They would vow to pay off debts and return borrowed farm equipment.
The most iconic New Year’s tradition in the United States is dropping a giant ball in New York City’s Times Square at midnight. This event has occurred almost every year since 1907, and millions worldwide watch it. Over time, the ball has grown from a 700-pound iron-and-wood orb to a brightly patterned sphere 12 feet in diameter, weighing almost 12,000 pounds. Different towns and cities across America have developed versions of the Times Square ritual, organising public drops of various items, including pickles in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, and possums in Tallapoosa, Georgia, at midnight on New Year’s Eve.