Nowadays most new year celebrations around the world begin on December 31st, New Year’s Eve, and continue into the early hours of January 1st, New Year’s Day. But this hasn’t always been the observed date.
The earliest New Year celebrations are believed to have been in Babylon (Mesopotamia) about 2000 BC. They took place in late March, at the time of the first new moon following the spring equinox. The festival was called Akitu, the name being derived from the Sumerian word for barley, which was harvested in the spring. Other ancient cultures celebrated the new year during different seasons: for the Egyptians, Phoenicians and Persians the new year began with the autumn equinox, and for the Greeks it was the winter equinox.
For the early Romans, the new year began on March 1st. At that time, the Roman calendar was only ten months, as created by Romulus,the legendary first king of Rome around 700 BC. January and February were added by the second Roman king, Numa Pomplius who reigned from 715 to 673 BC. The first time the new year was celebrated on January 1st in Rome was in 153 BC. It was moved to January as this was the time when two newly elected consuls began their one-year terms of office. But some people continued the tradition of starting the new year on March 1 – until Julius Caesar changed things by introducing the Julian calendar, which decreed that January 1st became the only observed date.
In medieval Europe the celebrations accompanying the new year were considered pagan and unchristian, and in 567 January 1st was abolished as the beginning of the new year. Throughout this period it was celebrated at various dates, including December 25 (the birth of Christ) March 1, March 25th (the Feast of the Annunciation) and Easter. This situation lasted until 1582, when the Gregorian calendar was introduced (named after Pope Gregory X111). It was adopted by most Catholic countries almost immediately, but only gradually by Protestant ones. Britain did not adopt it until 1752 and until then, the British Empire, and the American colonies, continued to celebrate the new year in March.
Today, much of the world celebrates New Year on January 1, but there are several cultures that celebrate it on different dates. The Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, starts on the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month of the Chinese calendar. It lasts for 23 days and ends on the 15th day of the first lunar month in the following year’s calendar.
The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is celebrated in September, and Diwali, India’s new year is in October. In Japan, the New Year holiday is one of the most important of the year. It is called Oshogatsu (New Years Days) as it is celebrated for three days, from January 1st-3rd. Sending cards to each other is an important aspect of the holiday. The Japanese Post Office holds all the cards back until January 1st when they are delivered, all over Japan!
There are many New Year traditions in different countries around the world and it would be impossible to mention them all, but here are just a few. Eating certain foods features in many traditions:
In Spain, a dozen grapes are eaten, one for every stroke of midnight, symbolising people’s hopes for the twelve months ahead. In other parts of the world, legumes are eaten as they are thought to resemble coins which suggest future financial success. In Italy, lentils are favoured and in the southern United States it’s black-eyed peas.
In Cuba, Austria, Hungary and Portugal, pork features on New Year’s Eve menus because pigs represent progress and prosperity, while in the Netherlands, Greece and Mexico, ring-shaped cakes and pastries are a sign that the year has come full circle. And lastly . . . in Norway and Sweden, rice pudding is served with an almond hidden in it. The person who finds it can look forward to twelve months of good fortune.
Other New Year traditions have nothing to do with food:
A Mexican tradition involves the colour of underwear a person chooses. Those who want to find love wear red, while those who seek wealth and luck wear yellow. In Ecuador they set fire to scarecrows filled with paper at midnight on New Year’s Eve to banish anything bad that happened in the past.
In the USA, the evening is celebrated with both formal parties and family activities and a variety of public events. One of the best known celebrations is held in Times Square in New York and is known as the ‘ball drop’. This involves a huge 12-foot/3.7m ball made of Waterford crystal and weighting 11,875-pound/5,386 kg, being lowered from the roof of Number One Times Square down a 77-foot-high flagpole*. The ball reaches the roof, 60 seconds later and signals the start of the new year.
*I came across three different heights for this. Two different Wikipedia sites gave 70 and 141 foot, respectively, and another site gave 77 foot. I went with the middle one.
In Britain, it is traditional to stay up all night and welcome the new year in. It is often celebrated with parties and family get-togethers, toasts of champagne, singing and dancing and fireworks. As the clock in London known as Big Ben, strikes midnight, people all over the UK cross their arms across their chests, link hands and sing Auld Lang Syne to remind them of old and new friends. Many English homes also continue a custom similar to the first-footing described below as part of the Scottish Hogmanay celebrations. On the stroke of midnight, people open the back door to let the old year out and ask the first dark-haired man to be seen to come through the front door carrying salt, coal and bread. This means that the following year everyone in the house will have enough to eat (bread), enough money (salt) and be warm enough (coal). When I was a child, it was always my dark-headed dad who was booted out with his lump of coal, salt and bread a little before midnight. He generally came back in at midnight, when everyone linked up to sing Auld Lang Syne and wish each other a Happy New Year.
In Scotland, the New Year celebrations are called Hogmanay. Festivities involve drinking and revelry in traditional Scottish style which lasts for a day or two into the new year. One of the traditions is first-footing, whereby neighbours pay visits to each other at midnight imparting good wishes for the coming year. Traditionally, first foots brought along a gift of coal for the fire, or shortbread. (Some sites also include whisky and a black bun – a rich, dark fruitcake, encased in pastry). It is considered especially lucky if the first person to enter the house after the new year is rung in is a tall, dark, and handsome man.
The Edinburgh Hogmanay celebration is the largest in the country and one of the most famous New Year celebrations in the world. It is focused on a major street party along Princes Street. The cannon is fired at Edinburgh Castle on the stroke of midnight, followed by a large fireworks display.
Scotland is also the birthplace of the well-known and well-loved New Year song, Auld Lang Syne. On New Year’s Eve we all gather together to sing the song that has become a part of the night’s festivities in many countries, despite most of us not knowing the words, let alone the meaning of them! So what is Auld Lang Syne all about . . .?
The Scottish poet, Robert Burns, was the first person to write down the lyrics of the poem in 1788, although a version had existed for almost 80 years before that time. Some of the lyrics were ‘collected’rather than composed by Burns. The ballad Old Long Syne, printed in 1711 by James Watson, shows many similarities and is most probably derived from the same old song. Burns is said to have sent a letter to the Scots Musical Museum with a note saying: The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.
The melody we know today did not appear until after Burns’ death and singing the song on Hogmanay soon became a tradition across Scotland. It rapidly spread to the rest of Britain, as well as the US and Canada.
As for the meaning of Auld Lang Syne, there are too many verses for me to add a translation of the whole song here, but the actual words, Auld Lang Syne, mean old long since – or times gone by in the old Scottish dialect. The song focuses on old friends and whether times past will be forgotten. It asks that we remember people of the past with fondness.
Here’s a translation of the first verse and chorus:
Should old acquaintances be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot
And auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear
For auld lang syne
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.
Should old acquaintance be forgotten
And never remembered?
Should old acquaintance be forgotten
For times gone by?
For times gone by, my dear,
For times gone by
We will take a cup of kindness yet
For times gone by.
To finish, here’s a version of Auld Lang Syne I found on YouTube. I love this version by the Scottish singer, Dougie MacLean. It was uploaded by saminnyc. I really wanted a version with bagpipes, but most versions with bagpipes did not have vocals. So I decided on this one. The Scottish voice more than makes up for the bagpipes:
All that remains for me to do now is to wish every one of you out there a wonderful and Happy New Year!
1. From History Vault: http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/new-years
2. From Info please: http://www.infoplease.com/spot/newyearhistory.html
3. From Protect Britain: http://projectbritain.com/year/newyearseve.html
4. Various Wikipedia sites for info. and some of the images used in the post (others from Shutterstock or Pixabay).