The greeting “Happy New Year!” will be said and heard for at least the first couple of weeks of 2013 as the New Year gets under way. Many do not know this, but the day celebrated as New Year’s Day in modern America was not always January 1.
The Romans observed the new year in late March, but their calendar was continually changed by various emperors so their calendar soon was no longer synchronized with the sun. To set the calendar right, in 153 BC the Roman senate declared January 1 to be the beginning of the new year. Even with this decree the changes of the calender continued until 46 BC when Julius Caesar established what has come to be known as the Julian Calendar. It set January 1, again, as the new year. In order to synchronize the calendar with the sun, Caesar had to let the previous year drag on for 445 days. There are definitely years I feel like I could have used those extra days to get everything done!
One very popular tradition of modern New Year celebration is the making of New Year’s resolutions. This is a tradition that also dates back to the early Babylonians. Popular modern resolutions might include the promise to lose weight or quit smoking, while the early Babylonian’s most popular resolution was to return borrowed farm equipment. Perhaps if anyone has something borrowed they haven’t returned they could take a page of ancient Babylon’s book and celebrate this New Year’s Resolution!
It was the tradition in Greece in around 600 BC to signify the new year beginning with the symbol of a baby. They celebrated Dionysus, their god of wine, by parading a baby in a basket, which represented the annual rebirth of that god as the spirit of fertility. A baby as a symbol of rebirth was also used by the Egyptians. Although the early Christians denounced the practice as pagan, the popularity of the baby as a symbol of rebirth forced the Church to reevaluate its position, with the Church finally allowing its members to celebrate the new year with a baby, symbolizing the birth of the baby Jesus. The Germans used the symbol of a baby with a New Year’s banner dating back to the 14th century, and brought this image with them to early America.
One of the most well known New Years traditions is a toast of champagne at midnight, to ring in the new year. The practice of toasting can be traced back to the ancient Romans and Greeks who would pour wine to be shared among those attending a religious function, from a common pitcher. As poisoning the wine was a fairly common practice in ancient times, designed to do away with one’s enemies, the host would drink from his glass first to assure his guests that the wine was not poisoned. It was called a toast because in those days the wine was not as refined as it is today, so a square of burned bread (toast) would be floated in the wine bowl and eaten by the last person to drink. The bread was thought to absorb the extra acidity of the wine which made it more palatable. Eventually, the act of drinking in unison came to be called a toast, from the act of “toasting” or putting toast into the wine.
The song, “Auld Lang Syne,” is sung at the stroke of midnight in almost every English-speaking country in the world to bring in the new year. It was partially written by Robert Burns in the 1700’s, and was first published in 1796 after Burns’ death. Early variations of the song sung before 1700 inspired Burns to create the version we know today. In Scottish “Auld Lang Syne” means “old long ago,” or simply, “the good old days.”
Now that we have all had a history lesson on the traditions of the New Year, we can move into it knowing we have celebrated, or not, in a similar way to those who have gone on before us in generations long past. At our house we are ringing in the new year likely on an earlier time zone, since we are both yawning our heads off and could use the shut eye. We are very grateful for the extra day off together and will appreciate new beginnings better after a good night sleep.
Happy New Year and God Bless You and Yours. May the New Year bring you good health, much laughter, and many blessings.