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New Year's History and Traditions

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Updated December 26, 2011

The start of a new year has a special significance to people all around the world. It is a time rich with history and traditions and while most of us celebrate and often make New Year's resolutions, few of us know what's behind the celebrating and the resoltion making, and probably even fewer of us are aware of the many ways the New Year is welcomed in different cultures. If your children like to ask "why" as many gifted children do, you'll want to know the answers!

The Beginning of Celebrating the New Year:

Celebrating the new year goes back 4000 years ago, but it didn't begin in western cultures until only 400 years ago. The holiday began in ancient Babylonia (now Iraq)around 2000 B.C. However, the Babylonians began their new year near the end of what is now March, a logical time to start a new year since winter was over, spring with its new life was beginning and crops were planted for the coming year.

In 153 B.C. the Roman senate decreed the new year to begin on January 1. It made this decree to correct the calendar, which had become out of synch with the sun. The date has no agricultural or seasonal significance.

The Acceptance of the New Year's Celebration:

Although January 1 had no agricultural or seasonal significance, it did have a civil one. On that date the newly elected Roman consuls would step into their positions. Interestingly, the month of January is named for the Roman god Janus, who had two faces, which can represent looking back at the old year and one looking forward to the new one.

Celebrating the new year was a pagan practice and for that reason, the early Christian church condemned it. However, in order to more easily convert pagans to Christianity, the Church accepted the celebration on January 1, but made it the Feast of Christ's Circumcision.

New Year's Resolutions:

Making resolutions on New Year's is as old as the holiday itself. The Babylonians would make resolutions, the most popular one being to return farm equipment! The ancient Romans also made resolutions for the new year, their most popular one being to ask for forgiveness from their enemies.

The Anglo-Saxons, who settled what is England, had a festival called Yule, which celebrated a fertile and peaceful season. The boar was a part of this celebration and people would make solemn "boar oaths" for the coming year.

Customs:

Although the day designated as the day the new year begins may differ from culture to culture, it is a time the world over for celebrating. There are so many different customs that it is impossible to list them all, but here are some of them:
  • Germany
    Small pieces of lead are melted in a spoon over a lit candle. The melted lead is dropped into cold water. It hardens into shapes, which predict the future. A heart or ring shape, for example, means a wedding.
  • Greece
    A gold or silver coin is baked into a cake. The person who has the piece of cake with the coin inside will be lucky for the rest of the year.
  • Japan
    Before the holiday, houses must be cleaned, inside and out. At midnight on New Year's Eve, a monk at a local shrine strikes a gong to signify the forgiving of the past year's mistakes.

  • Netherlands
    To purge the old year and welcome in the new one, the Dutch make bonfires in the street out of their Christmas trees.

  • Scotland
    Firstfooting-people visit neighbors just after midnight to wish them well for the new year. It is considered good luck if the first person to step foot into your house is a tall, dark and handsome man!
  • Spain
    Eating twelve grapes at midnight on New Year's Eve will bring twelve months of happiness.
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