HOLIDAY HISTORY: Celebrating New Year’s, The Oldest of Humanity’s Holidays
By John Copeland
Would you believe January was not always the first month of the year?
In terms of human history, celebrating New Year’s on Jan. 1 is a relatively new phenomenon. And yet, celebrating the start of the new year is, perhaps, the oldest of all humanity’s holidays.
Ancient Babylonian cuneiform clay tablets, discovered in Iraq and dated to 2000 BCE, are the earliest record of festivities celebrating the arrival of the new year. However, the Babylonian New Year began with the first visible crescent moon after the spring equinox. In ancient Babylon, the New Year festival, called Akitu, was celebrated for 12 days. The ancient cuneiform tablets reveal the Akitu was the most significant observance of the year.
Several other ancient cultures celebrated their New Year on other dates also tied to the seasons. The Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Persians began their New Year at the fall equinox, and the Greeks celebrated theirs on the winter solstice.
India and Iran celebrate their New Year in March. Ancient Hebrews celebrated the New Year in the fall at Rosh Hashanah, and today, Jews worldwide still continue this tradition. Ancient Celts and other northern European cultures celebrated their New Year beginning at dusk on Oct. 31. One quickly gets the idea that New Year’s is among the oldest and most persistent of human celebrations.
The various dates for New Years, begs the question: How did January become the first month on our calendar and the beginning of our New Year? As a day, Jan. 1 has no astronomical or agricultural significance for beginning the year. However, like many of our festivities that occur throughout the year, we can blame the Romans. In fact, the month of January did not even exist until around 700 BCE, when the second king of Rome, Numa Pontilius, added the months of January and February to the Roman calendar.
The month of January is associated with the god Janus. Janus was the one Roman god that has no Greek counterpart. In prayers, his name was evoked even before that of Jupiter. According to some worshipers, Janus was the custodian of the universe, but to the Romans, he was the god of beginnings and endings, presiding over every entrance and departure. Because every door or passageway looks in two directions, Janus is always depicted as two-headed; one face looks back into the past, the other peers forward to the future.
In 46 BCE, Julius Caesar reformed the Roman calendar, introducing a new, solar-based calendar that was a vast improvement over the previous Roman calendar, which over the years had become wildly inaccurate. The Julian calendar decreed that the new year would occur with Jan. 1. From that time on, within the Roman Empire, Jan. 1 was observed as start of the new year.
After Rome’s decline and Christianity’s spread through Europe, the church considered New Year’s celebrations to be pagan and un-Christian. In 567 CE, the Council of Tours abolished Jan. 1 as the beginning of the year. Throughout Medieval Christian Europe, the New Year was again celebrated on a variety of dates; Dec. 25, the birth of Jesus; March 1; March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation; and Easter. Back then, there was no uniform calendar through most of the Middle Ages.
Then during the late 1500s, at the urging of Pope Gregory XII, Aloysius Lilus came up with a modification to the Julian calendar making it more accurate. Named the Gregorian calendar, after the pope, it is the calendar most of the world still follows today. The Gregorian calendar restored Jan. 1 as New Year’s Day. Although most Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar almost immediately, it was only gradually adopted by Protestant countries. The British, for example, did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752. Until then, the British Empire, and the American colonies, still celebrated the new year in March.
For us in the Northern Hemisphere, January is a logical time for a new beginning. On the December solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, we experience the shortest day of the year. By the beginning of January, our days are lengthening again. This return of longer hours of daylight had a profound effect on cultures that were tied to agricultural cycles. It even exerts an emotional effect on people living in cities today.
I think the ancient Romans were on to something with Janus. As the god of new beginnings, gates and doors, the first hour of the day, the first day of the month, and the first month of the year, Janus is a good symbol for starting the New Year. He looks forward to the future of the coming year and back in contemplation to the year just past.
This makes me think about New Year’s resolutions. Do you make them? It is believed that the Babylonians were the first to make New Year’s resolutions, and people all over the world have been making and breaking them ever since.
The Romans had a similar tradition of making New Year’s resolutions. A common resolution in ancient Rome was to ask forgiveness from enemies of the past year.
Early Christians believed the first day of the New Year should be spent reflecting on past mistakes and resolving to improve oneself in the New Year.
Whether or not our ancestors took their resolutions seriously and always achieved what they resolved to do is unknown. Today, when we make resolutions, we’re tapping into that ancient and powerful human longing for a fresh start.
And then there is putting the past year to rest.
Any regrets about the past year? To help focus on the future, write down your regrets on a scrap of paper and toss it in the fire. Janus, the two-faced god of the New Year, would approve!