Blogmas 31: a history of New Year’s celebrations

Hello lovelies! It’s New Year’s eve tonight, I hope you are ready to celebrate in whatever matter you see fit. Whether that. be staying up past midnight, counting down and enjoying fireworks. Or enjoying a nice dinner and going to bed early. Or something completely different. You do you!

For at least 4,000 years, people around the world have been celebrating the start of each new year. Common traditions these days include parties, dinners, making resolutions and watching fireworks. But let’s take a look at the history of the New Year celebrations.

Babylonian New Year

The earliest festivities for the new year that we know of date back to the Babylonian age, about 4,000 years ago. Their new year didn’t start in January, but in late March on the day with an equal amount of sunlight and darkness (also known a the vernal equinox). It was a religious celebration called Akitu, which lasted for 11 days with a different ritual each day. But it was not just a celebration of the new year, it also marked the mythical victory of the Babylonian sky god Marduk over the evil sea goddess Tiamat. And the festivities also had a political side: this was the time when new kings were crowned or when the current king’s divine mandate was renewed.

Egyptian New Year

In Ancient Egypt, the year change coincided with the annual flooding of the river Nile and the rising of the star Sirius – around mid-July. Sirius (the brightest star in the sky) would become visible in mid-July after having been absent for about 70 days, also known as a heliacal rising. And this was right before the annual flooding of the river Nile. They celebrated the festival Wepet Renpet, a time of rebirth and rejuvenation honoured with feasts and special religious rites.

Roman New Year

The Roman New year actually took place at around the same time as the Babylonian one, around the vernal equinox, but because they tampered with the solar calendar until it turned into the Julian calendar that was aligned with the patterns of the sun, and this date ended up being January 1st. So it’s from Roman times, that we get our current New Year change on January 1st. This was extra special for them as January referred to Janus, the two-faced god who represented change and new beginnings – looking back at the old and also ahead at the new. They would celebrate by giving offerings to Janus to gain good fortune for the new year. Friends and neighbours would also exchange well-wishes and gifts (fig, honey, …).

Chinese New Year

As you might know, the Chinese don’t celebrate New year on January 1st, but a few weeks later. This celebration originated over 3,000 years ago during the Shang dynasty to celebrate new beginnings and the spring planting season. The way they celebrate is based on a myth of Nian, a bloodthirsty creature that would destroy villages at that time. To frighten him away (successfully), the villagers would decorate their homes with red trimmings, burning bamboo and they would make loud noises. The festivities last for about 2 weeks and focus on the home and on family, including cleaning house and repaying old debts. Did you know that the Chinese were also the first to use fireworks in their New Year’s celebrations?

Chinese New year is still based on the lunar calendar that dates back to the 2nd millennium BC, which means it usually takes place in late January/early February on the second new moon after the winter solstice.

Happy New Year!

Loes M.

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