New Year's Day is the first day of the calendar year. Celebrated in almost every country today, January 1st has only been recognized as a holiday by Western nations for approximately 400 years. Since earliest times, people have sought to satisfy the deep-rooted longing for recreation by celebrating the New Year.
Observed on varying dates in different lands, New Year festivals mark the pivotal point where time is deemed to begin anew...an emergence of the pure and pristine for both the world itself and individuals alike, provided the proper steps are taken.
First, celebrants must banish the malicious spirits and accumulated evils of the past in order to prevent infection of the coming year. Next, come rites of purification, followed by positive acts which ensure an auspicious future. Sometimes, participants are unaware that they are following ancient mystical practices. Few Westerners, for example, realize that their New Year horns and fireworks were once used as tools intended to banish evil spirits.
Although they had no written calendar, ancient Babylonians (who resided in modern day Iraq) celebrated the beginning of a New Year on what is now March 23rd, the time of year when Spring arrives and new crops planted. It was a festival which lasted for 11 days, during which the King was stripped of his clothes and banished. For a few days, the people could do as they pleased. Upon the return of the King...in grand procession and wearing fine robes...the Babylonians went back to work and behaved in proper fashion once more. Thus, each New Year, did the people make a fresh start to their lives.
Ancient Egyptians originally celebrated the New Year with the Feast of Opet around the middle of June, which was when the Nile River usually overflowed its banks. Consequently, people were unable to work and would be free to take part in the festivities. Statues of the God, Amon, together with effigies of his wife and son, would be taken by boat down the Nile from Karnak to Luxor, where the people would sing, dance and feast for a 24 days before transporting the statues back to the temple. Phoenicians and Persians proclaimed the beginning of the New Year on the Autumnal Equinox (September22nd). Early Greeks first observed the occasion at the Winter Solstice (December 21st) and later, at the Summer Solstice (June 21st).
The Romans initially observed their New Year in March, a festival which they called Calends or Kalends. It was a time when people decorated their homes with lights and greenery and gave each other gifts carefully chosen for their luck-bringing properties, such as sweets or honey to ensure peace...gold, silver or monetary presents to ensure propsperity...and lamps for a year filled with light. The festival lasted for three days, during which time slaves and masters dined together and normal rules of the society were put on hold while everyone was permitted to do what they pleased.
The Emperor and other select politicians would usually be presented with gifts and wishes of good fortune for the year ahead. However, since the Roman calendar was constantly being tampered with by the Emperors, it became out of synchronization with the Sun. In order to set the calendar right, the Senate, in 153 B.C., proclaimed that the first day of a New Year would be observed on January 1st. Nevertheless, tampering with the calendar continued until 46 B.C., when Julius Caesar established what was to later be known as the Julian Calendar. Again, it designated January 1st as the New Year but, in order to synchronize the calendar with the Sun, Caesar was obliged to allow the previous year to continue for 445 days.
New Year's Day became a Holy Day in the Christian Church in 487 A.D., when it was declared the Feast of the Circumcision. Originally, parties were not allowed on this day because the pagans had followed that custom. However, in time, attitudes changed and it was deemed that celebrations could again be held. January 1st became generally recognized as New Year's Day in the 1500s, when the Gregorian Calendar was introduced. By this time, the Julian Calendar, once more out of calibration, placed the first day of the year 13 days later on January 14th.
In Ancient Rome, the beginning of the New Year was a time to expunge the ills of the past twelve months and establish a pattern for the twelve months to come through good conduct. Friends reconciled any differences, adversaries suspended litigation and people exchanged gifts. Many Roman citizens also brought gifts to the Emperor and wished him good fortune. Initially, these donations were simple branches of bay and palm leaves but later, more expensive presents were given.
Roman Senators received flowers and fruits...or even bolts of beautiful fabrics...from people who wanted favors. Roman merchants carried this gift-giving custom as far east as Persia (now known as Iran). There, the ancient Persians followed the Roman tradition by exchanging presents of eggs. Since an egg hatches into life, this custom meant much the same thing as "turning over a new leaf." The Celts, a race of people who lived in Gaul (now known as France) and some areas of Britain prior to the Roman invasion celebrated their New Year at the end of October. The festival was called Samhain, which means "summer's end."
When the Roman legions arrived in England, they found that the Druid priests celebrated their New Year on March 10th. The priests would cut branches of mistletoe which grew on the sacred oak and give the boughs to the people for charms. The early English adopted many of the Roman traditions. Later, English people followed the custom of cleaning chimneys on New Year's Day. This was supposed to bring good luck to the household during the coming year. Today, the common phrase is "cleaning the slate," rather than "cleaning the chimney," but the intent is the same...the making of resolutions to correct faults and bad habits and the resolve to make the coming year a better one than before. The actual tradition of making New Year Resolutions is believed to have originated with the ancient Babylonians, whose most popular resolution is thought to have been the return of borrowed farm equipment.
The Roman custom of giving gifts to their Emperor was revived by the English in the 1200s. Jewelry, gloves and other presents were brought to the English monarch. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), for example, built up a fine collection of hundreds of pairs of richly-embroidered and bejeweled gloves by virtue of this custom. English husbands also adopted the habit of giving their wives money on New Year's Day with which to buy pins for the whole year. This custom disappeared in the 1800s when machines were developed to manufacture pins, but the term "pin money" still refers to small amounts of spending cash.
Many ancient Roman traditions continue to survive in Europe and Latin America, overlaid with new superstitions. In many areas, the first person to enter a house on New Year's Day is thought to determine the luck for the coming year. Bad luck is believed to accompany a woman...particularly one with fair or red hair. Tall, dark-haired men are highly favored as "first-footers," supposedly bringing the assurance of a happy year to come.