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The History of New Year’s Celebration

I thought New Year’s was a holiday simply because it’s the first day of the new year, but there’s a lot more that went into it besides what our calendars say. Modern New Year’s, with parties, live shows, the ball drop, and all the traditions you know yourself are the result of years of development. Here’s the history of New Years.

The first records of New Year’s celebrations date to Ancient Babylon. Their first day of the year was a day in March, the first moon after the vernal equinox, with an equal amount of sunlight and darkness for the day. They celebrated with a religious festival called Akitu, which lasted 11 days. Rituals included celebrating the victory of their sky god Marduk and crowning the next king or the ruler’s reign was renewed (Source: History.com).

A number of cultures began their years with astrological or agricultural events. Egypt’s calendar began on the annual flooding of the Nile River, and the rising of the star Sirius. The Chinese  new year began with the second moon after the winter solstice (Source: History.com).

The first New Year’s on January 1st was in 45 BC when the main man, Julius Caesar, decided that the calendar needed to be reformed. His calendar was janky back then, always falling out of line with the lunar cycle or being changed by politicians to extend their terms, but over the years it’s evolved into the calendars we have today (Source: History.com).

The reason why New Year’s wasn’t celebrated until 45 BC is because the dude Caesar hired to help him make the calendar, an astronomer named Sosigenes, told Caesar that the calendar should be based on the solar cycle and not the lunar cycle, AKA copy the Egyptians. This decreased the length of each day and added 67 more days, and adds an extra day in February every year, so 46 BC began on January 1st (Source: History.com).

But it still wasn’t perfect. The solar year is 365.242199 days, not 365.25 days as Caesar decided, which according to a lot of math, adds 7 days by the 1,000th day and 10 days by the mid 15th century all due to a shortage of 11 minutes every year (Source: History.com).

During the Middle Ages, no one liked the Julian calendar so New Year’s wasn’t celebrated. Pope Gregory XIII sought to fix it in the 1570s, and he and Christopher Clavius birthed the Gregorian Calendar in 1582, which omitted ten days and introduced the leap year that adds another day in February every four years. The Gregorian calendar set in stone for the first time the celebration of New Year’s Day (Source: History.com).

Celebrations have definitely changed over the years. In America, New Year’s parties filled with food and champagne are popular as everyone puts on their TVs to watch the ball drop in Times Square (which has been done since 1907) and live performances, and don’t forget about the fireworks. Sometimes people are caught running down the streets banging pots and pans and using noise makers after midnight to celebrate, and don’t forget about the crucial New Year’s kiss that I’ve never had. Little did you know, the Times Square ball drop is so popular that other states have their own versions with different objects instead of a 12,000 pound sphere, including Dillsburg, PA, that drops pickles and Tallapoosa, GA, that drops possums for some reason. (Source: History.com).

In Spain (and many other Spanish-speaking countries), right before midnight people eat 12 grapes in celebration of the 12 months ahead. Many places (including Italy and the Southern US) New Year’s dishes include legumes because they’re thought to resemble coins, which entitle for financial achievement. A lot of countries (Cuba, Austria, Hungary, Portugal, etc) eat pork, because pigs represent progress and prosperity. Mexico, the Netherlands, Greece, and other cool countries, can’t get enough of circular cakes because the year has come to a full circle. Sweden and Norway play a fun game with rice pudding with a hidden almond inside, and whoever finds the almond has a year of good luck. “Auld Lang Syne” is the most played song on this holiday, traditionally sung at Midnight, translated into “time goes on” (Source: History.com).

Ready for more universal traditions for New Year’s? Danish people save all their unused dishes and smash them on New Year’s, specifically on the doors of friends and family. People in Ecuador burn paper-filled scarecrows and photographs from the last year for good fortune. In South American countries, people wear colored underwear to symbolize what they hope the new year brings them (red for love, gold for wealth, white for peace, etc). In Colombia, they carry their suitcases all day so the new year is filled with travel. The French celebrate by eating a stack of pancakes (and I’m down to adopt this tradition). Romanians throw spare coins into rivers for good luck (Source: List25).

The tradition that is mostly associated with the US is New Year’s resolutions. Although only 8% of people follow through with their resolutions, thousands of Americans come up with a goal for the upcoming year that they begin on New Year’s Day. The most common resolutions are save money (53%), lose weight or get in shape (45%), have more sex (25%), travel more (24%), read more books (23%), learn a new skill or hobby (22%), buy a house (21%), quit smoking (16%), and find love (15%) (Source: Statista). Resolutions date back for centuries, our good old friends the Babylonians practiced resolutions on their Akitu celebration. Early Christians would resolve their past mistakes on New Year’s to make a better future (Source: History.com).  

Nowadays, instead of making promises to the gods, we make promises to ourselves as a start of the new year. So for the first few minutes of 2019, maybe pick up another tradition from another country. Eat some grapes, wear red underwear, break some plates, and actually follow your resolution. I’ve definitely learned a lot about this holiday, which unbenounced to me has been developing for 4,000 years. Hey, maybe if you follow every New Year’s tradition at the same time, you’ll have the best year of your life. Or, maybe you’ll have that anyway.

Jennifer Davenport

Elizabethtown '21

Campus Correspondent for the Her Campus club at Elizabethtown College. Jennifer is part of the Class of 2021, and she's a middle level English education major, with a creative writing minor. Her hobbies include volunteering, watching YouTube for way too many hours, and posting memes on her Instagram. She was raised in New Jersey, lives in New York, and goes to college in Pennsylvania, so she's ruined 3 of America's 50 states. She's an advocate for mental health, LGBT+ rights, and educational reform.
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