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No matter our background, most of us will very soon be celebrating New Year’s Day, even if it’s just the day we stop writing “2019” on checks (checks? how old-fashioned!). Have you ever wondered how January 1st became recognized as New Year’s Day throughout most of the modern world?
Image: Babylonian New Year’s festival of Akitu
According to multiple sources, the earliest recorded New Year’s celebration was a long time ago in Mesopotamia (c. 2000 BC). Then, the new year was recognized as beginning with the vernal equinox (mid-March for us today). Other cultures, such as the Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Persians, celebrated the new year at the autumnal equinox (our mid-September).
Image: Roman Colosseum
The Romans originally celebrated New Year's on March 1st of their ten-month, 304-day calendar (side note: the reason our last four months are named “SEPTember”, “OCTober”, “NOVember”, and “DECember” is because they were the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months of the year). Somewhere around 700 BCE two new months, January and February, were added, but New Year’s was still celebrated on March 1st.
Around 153 BCE the Roman civil year began on January 1st, so many people started celebrating New Year’s on January 1st at that point. However, it was not an official change and many people continued celebrating New Year’s in March.
Image: Julius Caesar Image: Janus, God of Gates
The Julian Calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE, along with a decree that New Year’s would be celebrated on January 1st, to coincide with the civil year and the celebration of Janus, the god of gates. So, January 1st was THE date...for a while, anyway…
In 567 CE the Council of Tours abolished January 1st as the date for New Year’s. Until the institution of the Gregorian Calendar by the Council of Nicaea in 1582, New Year’s was celebrated on a number of days throughout medieval Europe, often coinciding with major Christian feasts, ranging from December 25th (Birth of Christ) to March 25th (Feast of the Annunciation).
Images: front page of Gregorian Calendar; Pope Gregory XIII
HOWEVER...Pope Gregory’s calendar still didn’t unify Europe under one New Year’s celebration. For example, the British (and their colonies) did not switch to the Gregorian calendar until 1752. Today, most of the world uses the Gregorian calendar, and observes January 1st as the beginning of the New Year.
Modern countries that do not use the Gregorian calendar include Afghanistan, Iran, Ethiopia, and Nepal. Countries that use their own plus the Gregorian calendar include Bangladesh, India, and Israel. Countries that use modified versions of the Gregorian calendar include Taiwan, Thailand, North Korea, and Japan. China uses the Gregorian calendar for civil record-keeping but use the traditional Chinese calendar for the dates of festivals.
Image: polar bear plunge
All cultures that observe New Year’s have developed traditions around the celebrations. Some of these traditions include making resolutions for the New Year; dressing up for parties on New Year’s Eve, with a special toast and noisemakers at midnight; polar bear plunges into frigid water; eating special foods for luck such as black-eyed peas, lentils, soba noodles, or grapes; and singing “Auld Lang Syne” around a bonfire. Here in the U.S., it’s often a time to gather with friends and family to watch a bowl game on tv (or, if you plan ahead, attend one live).
Image: volunteer recording an audiobook for Learning Ally
Anyway you celebrate it, the New Year is always felt to be a time for new beginnings and fresh starts, a time for casting off the old and ringing in the new. What new and exciting things will you do this year? Maybe...help with more books for Learning Ally? Go through Reader Training and become a Reader/Narrator? Become a mentor to new volunteers? Maybe you’ll get some of your friends involved, and start your own local Learning Ally group? The sky’s the limit!
It’s going to be a wonderful year! Happy 2020, everyone!
Image: Eleanor Roosevelt with quotation, "The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."