The history of New Years celebrations is about as old as the human conception of time itself. Ancient cultures celebrated the first of a new year as a special time, even though the date on which they celebrated might have been different from the one we recognize today.
From the first calendars in Mesopotamia thousands of years ago, New Year’s Day has been a time for friends, family and festivities. New Year’s Day was celebrated at least as far back as 2000 BC which is when we have the first records. These records show that the Babylonians celebrated New Year’s Day on the day when the moon was just visible after having gone dark after the vernal (spring ) equinox. This would have put New Year’s Day for the ancient Babylonians near the end of March or possibly the beginning of April, depending on the year. The celebration was tied not just to the new year, but also to the planting of the crops and the earth coming back to life after winter.
Some of the traditions we associate with New Year’s Day also originate with the Babylonians. For example, the tradition of New Year’s resolutions is thought to have begun at this time. History tells us that the custom of making a New Year’s resolution began with the Babylonian custom of returning something that they had borrowed from a neighbor or friend on New Year’s Day. The Romans later carried on the custom of the resolution by promising themselves to ask for forgiveness from an enemy or someone they had wronged the previous year.
New Year’s Day still has strong associations with things that are young and new, like the New Year’s Baby. This tradition, however, started with the Greeks and the Egyptians. Both of these cultures also celebrated New Year’s in the spring time, and the celebration of spring and newness, plantings and fertility were big themes in the celebrations. In the Greek tradition, Baby New Year is Dionysus, the god of wine, being reborn as the spirit of fertility. The Greeks would parade babies around the city and the festivals in baskets as a symbol of Dionysus’s rebirth.
Another New Year’s tradition that we get from ancient cultures is celebrating the very minute that the New Year begins. Today we have exact ways of measuring time and know to the very second when the new year begins. While the ancients did not have the luxury of atomic clocks, they did believe that the first things a person did on the first day of the new year would affect the luck they would or would not enjoy over the coming year. That is why it was important to begin the year with friends, family, food and fun because it was thought to bring good luck for the rest of the year.
Like most pagan holidays, the Catholic Church frowned upon celebrating this particular holiday in the beginning. St. Eligius, who lived in Europe in the 600’s, warned against celebrating New Year’s Day. One of the reasons why the Church decided not to ban the New Year celebration is because of the symbol of the baby. Although they tried to associate the infant with Christ, and the baby Christ is a powerful symbol, the association never really caught on and most people think of the two as separate entities. Still, the celebrations continue to this day with the traditions passed down to us over thousands of years.
The actual dates associated with New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day sometime differ depending upon the culture. In terms of the Roman and Gregorian calendars, the day is January 1st of each year. The Chinese New Year, however, is based upon a lunar calendar which means that the New Year comes the day after the first full moon of the existing year.
Julius Caesar is responsible for establishing January 1st as the official New Year in 46 BCE; it was Caesar who ensured that the calendar aligned more perfectly with the four seasons of the year. In the Middle Ages, Christians changed the date of the New Year so that it aligned with Christmas on the 25th of December. In the sixteenth century, however, the Julian calendar was revamped by Pope Gregory XIII, and the process once again put the New Year as the 1st of January.