Lessons >>> Lesson 15
New Year's is one of the oldest celebrated holidays. It was first observed 4000 years ago in ancient Babylon, coinciding with the spring equinox (late March) and planting new crops. The celebration lasted for 11 days. During the festival, the king was stripped of his clothes and sent away so everyone could do what they wanted for a few days. At the end of the holiday, the king returned in a grand procession, dressed in fine robes and everyone went back to work.
Romans also celebrated New Year's during March. It was Julius Caesar who changed the Roman New Year's Day to January 1 in 46 BC. Fittingly, January was named after the Roman god, Janus (God of all beginnings and gate keeper of heaven and earth). Janus was always depicted with two faces: One looking back to the old year (past) and one looking ahead to the new year (future).
During the Middle Ages, the Church remained opposed to celebrating New Years. Up unto 1582, Christian Europe celebrated New Years Day on March 25 to herald new birth and a new season. Pope Gregory XIII instituted additional calendar reforms bringing us the calendaring system of the day. The Gregorian calendar was adopted by Catholic countries immediately while the reformists, suspect of any papal policy, only adapted it after some time. Today most countries around the world have adopted this calendaring system.
From primitive man to today, New Year's Day has been recognized as a day in which rites were done to abolished the past so there could be a rejuvenation for the new year. Rituals included purgation, purification, exorcisms, extinguishing and rekindling fires, masked processions (masks representing the dead), and other similar activities. Often exorcisms and purgations were performed with much noise as if to scare away the evil spirits.
Traditionally, it was thought that one could affect the luck they would have throughout the coming year by what they did or ate on the first day of the year. For that reason, it has become common for folks to celebrate the first few minutes of a brand new year in the company of family and friends. Parties often last into the middle of the night after the ringing in of a new year. It was once believed that the first visitor on New Year's Day would bring either good luck or bad luck the rest of the year. It was particularly lucky if that visitor happened to be a tall dark-haired man.
Other traditions of the season include the making of New Year's resolutions. That tradition also dates back to the early Babylonians. The early Babylonian's most popular resolution was to return borrowed farm equipment. The resolutions today are simply a secular version of the religious vows made in the past toward spiritual perfection. Popular modern resolutions might include the promise to lose weight or quit smoking. They are often made with good intentions and broken with a sense of humor and renewed annually.
Traditional New Year foods are also thought to bring luck. Many cultures believe that anything in the shape of a ring is good luck, because it symbolizes the end of the one year with the seamless beginning of the next, completing a year's cycle. For that reason, the Dutch believe that eating donuts on New Year's Day will bring good fortune. Many parts of the country celebrate the New Year by consuming black-eyed peas. Cabbage is another "good luck" vegetable that is consumed on New Year's Day by many.
Although many countries celebrate New Year's on the same day, each country has different traditions. In Southeast Asia they release birds and turtles for good luck in the coming year. In Japan, people hang a rope of straw in front of their houses signifying happiness and good luck. They believe it keeps the evil spirits away. Japanese people begin to laugh the moment the New Year begins, so they will have good luck the whole year. In British Columbia, Canada, there is a traditional polar bear swim, where people put on their bathing suits and and plunge into the icy cold water.
A New Year party on the New Year's Eve is the most common type of celebration in England. When at midnight the chimes of Big Ben are broadcast, they drink a toast to the New Year. The most famous celebration takes place in Trafalgar Square in London, where big crowds gather to welcome the New Year. If the family prefer to bring in the New Year at home there is such a custom: the members of the household sat themselves round the hearth, and when the hands of the clock approach the hour, the head of the family rises, goes to the front door, opens it wide, and holds it thus until the last stroke of midnight has died away. Having let the Old Year out and the New Year in, he shuts the door quietly and returns to the family circle.
In Scotland they celebrate Hogmanay. In some villages, they burn barrels of tar and roll them through the streets, showing that the old year is burned up and the new one can begin.
In the United States, the legal holiday is January 1, but Americans begin celebrating on December 31. Sometimes people have masquerade balls, where guests dress up in costumes and cover their faces with masks. According to an old tradition, guests unmask at midnight. At New Year's Eve parties across the United States on December 31, many guests watch television as part of the festivities. Most of the television channels show Times Square in the heart of New York City. At one minute before midnight, a lighted ball drops slowly from the top to the bottom of a pole on one of the buildings. People count down at the same time as the ball drops. When it reaches the bottom, the new year sign is lighted. People hug and kiss, and wish each other "Happy New Year!"
The song, "Auld Lang Syne," is traditionally sung at the stroke of midnight in almost every English-speaking country in the world to bring in the new year. The custom of singing this song on New Years Eve goes back to the British Isles from the 18th century when guests ended a party standing in a circle and singing this song. The custom first was rooted in Scotland, because the lyrics were written in 1788 by Robert Burns, their favorite folk poet of the time. But most musicologists feel that Auld Lang Syne came from a traditional Scottish folk melody. The entire song's message merely means to just forget about the past and look ahead to the new year with hope.
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