According to many beliefs and the current calendar, soon we end another year. We acknowledge anniversaries of this or that on any day of the year, so why is a new year celebrated the first of January?
The earliest recorded New Year celebrations occurred in mid-March, with the spring equinox. Various dates were used in ancient cultures, including those with religious significance: the fall equinox and winter solstice.
During this era, calendars were ten months and began with the month of March. Later, Romans reformed the calendar to 12 months, adding January and February. January was named for Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions, with two-faces, looking both backward and forward. Julius Caesar developed the “Julian calendar”, and while the twelve month calendar became increasingly accepted in the Roman world, other cultures continued to use the ten-month calendar.
After Julius Caesar was murdered, Romans voted to honor him by celebrating the New Year on January 1, which was the date their highest officials began their one-year term of service. Other cultures around the world continued to celebrate the New Year in different months.
The Gregorian calendar, which is widely accepted today, was implemented in 1582 by the Catholic Church, but was resisted especially by Protestants and the Orthodox, and was not accepted throughout the British Empire until 1752. It continued to be adopted slowly throughout the world, with Greece becoming the last Orthodox country to adopt it for civil use in 1923. Today the Gregorian calendar has become accepted as the civil calendar for use worldwide, but many cultures continue to use other calendars for culturally significant dates, holidays and celebrations.
While originally considered a pagan ritual, with superstitions and emphasis on indulgence, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day celebrations are now embraced as a time of new beginnings. The specifics of how each country or region commemorates the end of one year and the beginning of another differs, but historically and traditionally such celebrations are rooted in cultural heritage and things believed to bring good luck, health, and prosperity.
One belief states, “how you begin new year sets the pattern for the entire year.”According to various traditions, certain behaviors are said to ensure luck or dispel evil. Some of these include:
- Noise and fireworks, not merely to indicate joy, but to scare away evil.
- Gift giving and good luck greetings.
- Well-stocked cupboards ensure plenty.
- Money in your wallet to draw wealth.
- The first visitor of the New Year is said to determine your luck for the year, so pre-arrangements are often made for an appropriate visitor just after midnight. Superstition says this should be a dark haired man.
- Open windows to permit evil spirits of the year to exit, and then close them to capture good luck for the coming year.
- Take stock of life and give thanks for good things. The streamlined version is to consider shortcomings and make resolutions.
- Clean house, wash animals, toss coins, jump high, turn off lights, pay all bills, return borrowed objects, right wrongs with others, and set all things straight before the old year ends.
- Throw water from doors or windows, or a quick dip in local pools or the sea, to begin the year with a clean slate.
- People who hope to travel go outside, carrying luggage.
- Attend religious services or visit cemeteries.
- Wear clothing or decorate homes with colors and shapes, which represent various good wishes.
- Laugh heartily, to ward off worry and ensure happiness.
- Burn bonfires or effigies to abolish the old and greet the New Year.
- Parades, music, parties and dancing, especially open-air festivities.
- A beverage toast to others, denoting general goodwill.
- Kissing, to strengthen ties and insure affection continues.
If New Year’s eve is a time for righting wrongs and disappointments of the year past, New Year’s day is a time for doing things to insure the coming year will be bright. An old poem reminds us:
Take out, then take in, bad luck will begin.
Take in, then take out, good luck comes about.
Hence the adage to take nothing out of the home on new years day; not trash, not gifts, no sweeping, no shaking a rug etc. If anything goes out, it should be only after something lucky has first been brought into the home.
- Some other traditions and superstitions of New Year’s day include:
- Eat specific foods considered lucky or of historical significance.
- Do not eat poultry or fowl, lest you be “scratching out a living” all year.
- Notice the direction of the wind or no wind. Directionality indicates various things, but no wind is thought best for joy and prosperity.
- Do not do laundry or there will be a death in the family in the coming year; some people refuse to even wash dishes.
- Do not break anything or the year may end in rubble.
- No crying or you may be sad or tearful all year.
- Wear something new.
- Do at least one small thing successfully to insure success all year…but only one, lest the coming year brings you only work.
- Loan nothing; spend nothing.
- Put your best foot forward; avoid conversations about death, be kind and polite.
You probably have yet other traditions from your own family or culture. Perhaps the best tradition is to celebrate the New Year with people you enjoy. Wherever you are, however you end this year and begin the new, I hope you will happily and safely acknowledge the transition. Rather than the pressure of making resolutions, be clear in establishing your intentions and embrace the possibilities of good things to come. Happy New Year!