I could safely say that most of us know why we celebrate Christmas Day and Easter, but what about New Years Eve? Why do so many cultures across the globe farewell the passing year and welcome in a new one with lavish celebrations, fireworks, kisses at midnight and that weird song, “Auld Lang Syne”? I wanted to find out what it’s all about and share what I’ve discovered.
The first New Year’s celebrations
According to history.com, the first celebration to mark the new year began about 4000 years ago in ancient Babylon. It wasn’t celebrated on January 1st, like we do now. Their New Years Day was celebrated in late March with the arrival of the first new moon after the spring equinox (which was based on the movement of the sun).
They developed a religious festival call Akitu (Sumerian for barley) which lasted for 11 days. Behind the festivities was the belief that good powered over evil, which served a political interest when either a new king was crowned or current ruler’s mandate was renewed.
In other cultures, such as Egypt and China, the new year was marked by agricultural or astronomical events. For example, Egypt’s new year was when the Nile flooded, bringing new life to the province.
Celebrating New Year’s Day on January 1st
It wasn’t until 46 B.C. when Julius Caesar pronounced the Julian Calendar, which similar to the Gregorian calendar used today across many cultures, including our own. This was when January 1st initially became New Years Day. They celebrated by giving sacrificial offings to the God Janus (the Roman god of beginnings), exchanged gifts, placed laurel branches in their homes as decorations and had parties. The parties were quite an event where things apparently went a lot further than the humble smooch! Noise was encouraged to ward off evil spirits.
With the rise of Christianity in Medieval Europe, New Years day celebrations were replaced in lieu of Christian events such as Christmas Day. This is how it remained until 1582, when January 1st was reclaimed as New Years Day by Pope Gregory XIII.
New Year’s resolutions
The first of the traditions which were celebrated, date back to the instigators of New Years Day; the Babylonians. Their resolutions were in the form of promises to the Gods, like paying back their debts and returning borrowed farm equipment. To them, this was important stuff. Ultimately they wanted to get in the good books with the Gods for the upcoming year.
Consuming certain foods
In many countries foods plays an important role in celebrations, but not so much in our own culture. In Spain and Spanish speaking cultures, they consume a dozen grapes just prior to midnight to secure good fortune for upcoming months.
Legumes like lentils in Italy and black-eyed peas in the southern United States also symbolize good fortune because of their coin like appearance. Pork features prominently in places like Cuba and some European countries. Ring-shaped cakes and pastries, feature in the Netherlands, Mexico, Greece and other places. The Swedes and Norwegians hide an almond inside rice pudding and whoever finds it should expect a fortunate upcoming year.
The Chinese are the traditional creators of fireworks and therefore most celebrations included them. Their loud noise is said to ward away evil spirits. These days we celebrate with fireworks because they are enjoyed by so many people and cities put on marvelous displays for the masses.
Auld Lang Syne
Auld Lang Syne was a poem written by Scotsman, Robert Burns in 1788 and sung to the tune of a traditional folk song. In many English speaking countries, it’s sung at midnight on New Years Eve to farewell the old year and welcome in the new one. Many people know the tune, but by midnight the words often get a bit muddled!
Kissing at midnight
Giving and receiving a kiss at the strike of midnight New Years Eve began out of superstition. The ancient Romans were believed to have been the first to pucker up to ward off loneliness for the upcoming year. It’s also rumored that things went a wee bit further than kissing and there were possibly a few orgies going on in the prominent homes. Now, they really wanted to make sure they weren’t lonely!
The English and Germans elaborated on the superstition, believing that the quality of the kiss would indicate the quality of happiness experienced for the remainder of the year. This may be why the New Years Eve kiss is believed to be a special kiss, particularly for couples.
The Time Square ball drop
1904 was the first New Year to be welcomed in at Time Square. By 1907, Adolph Ochs, owner of The New York Times, commissioned Artkraft Strauss to design and construct an electrically lit ball which would drop at the stroke of midnight. He wanted something other than fireworks to wow the growing crowds.
Since then the ball has dropped each year, except 1942 and 1943 due to WW2 blackout restrictions. It has been reconstructed over the years and millions of people, world wide look forward to the famous Times Square New Years Eve ball drop.
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