Ancient societies celebrated the dawning of a new year with unique traditions, just as many of our own modern traditions can often be sourced back to the pagan festivals of old.
It has only been in more modern recorded history that the date of Jan. 1 was selected as the start of a new year. The earliest known New Year’s celebration is believed to have been in Mesopotamia in 2000 B.C. and was celebrated around the time of the vernal equinox in mid-March. The Egyptians, Phoenicians and Persians rang in the new year with the fall equinox, while the Greeks cracked open the vino on the winter solstice.
We owe the date of our own frigid bacchanalia on Jan. 1 to the Romans, who first celebrated New Year’s on that date in 153 B.C. Leave it to the duty-obsessed Romans to choose a date to correspond with their two elected consuls — the most powerful officials in the Roman Republic — taking office for the civic year (not unlike a fiscal year in modern times).
Incidently, the month of January actually sources its name from the Roman god Janus — the two-faced god who symbolized beginnings and endings, as well as the comings and goings of a doorway. Janus’ chief festival was held on the first day of the new year, and featured gift-giving, abstention from impure or cruel thoughts, and postponing and ending quarrels.
Later on, fear of an angry God pushed many celebrations of the new year underground in Medieval Europe, which were viewed as pagan, sacreligious and un-Christian. In 567, the Council of Tours even abolished Jan. 1 as the beginning of the new year to keep wayward mead-swilling sinners in their place. It wouldn’t be officially restored to Jan. 1 until 1582, when the Gregorian calendar became an accepted standard.
That, however, was only in Catholic jurisdictions — true to form, unruly Protestants didn’t easily accept popish dictates from Rome. The British, for example, did not accept the reformed calendar until 1752. Until then, the British Empire, including the American colonies, celebrated New Year’s in March.
Often considered a more pivotal celebration in Asiatic cultures than Christmas is in the West, New Year’s celebrations have been ongoing in China since the Shang Dynasty (1600 B.C.).
In historical Chinese tradition, New Year’s celebrations — which included decorating houses in red trim, burning bamboo, and making loud noises — were designed to ward off a bloodthirsty creature known as Nian, who devoured cattle and villagers alike. The Chinese New Year is still based on a lunar calendar, so the celebration usually takes place in late January or early February.
Residents of Scotland mark the arrival of the new year in a holiday they call “Hogmanay” that hearkens back to the time of Viking invasions, superstitions and classical pagan rituals. Hogmanay celebrations often feature torchlight processions, bonfires and fireworks, while visitors are expected to bear gifts — whiskey, coal, cakes or coin — and should be delivered by a dark-complexioned man. Sound stranger than some? In 8th century Britain getting a visit from a fair-complexioned man (think flaxen-haired Viking pillagers) was not considered a good omen.
In Spain, it is customary to have a dozen grapes at hand when the clock strikes 12 at midnight, with one grape eaten on each stroke. If all are eaten within the period of the strikes, it portends good luck in the new year.
In the Netherlands, the Dutch burn bonfires of Christmas trees on the street and launch fireworks, while in Sweden and Norway, an almond is hidden inside a rice pudding to bring good fortune. And in Buddhist temples around the world, gongs are struck 108 times on New Year’s Eve in an effort to ward off 108 types of human weakness.
Besides the idea of gargantuan alcohol-fueled celebrations in conjunction with the new year, tracing their roots back to the Romans and ancient Egyptians, we have of course one last tradition we owe to the venerable conquerors of Carthage — the kiss.
Ritualistic to the last, the Romans incorporated this orgiastic nod into their Solstice and Saturnalia celebrations, where the wine generally flowed as freely as the favour of one’s companions — be they male or female.
No matter how you celebrate the new year, be sure to take time to reflect on the year that has passed, and the opportunities represented by the present — that appears to be an almost universal human tradition, no matter what your race, colour, or creed.
Of course, sealing the deal with a Latin-style lip-lock with your beloved — or a total stranger, take your pick — never seems to hurt.