New Year's Day celebrations are some of the oldest in recorded history. While today, we mark the occasion with parties and parades, in the past New Year's celebrations were elaborate harvest festivals. While the elaborateness of the celebration has changed over time, many of our cherished New Year’s customs, symbols and foods have origins in pre-Christian (pagan) practices.
The History of New Year's Celebration
First observed in ancient Babylon about 4000 years ago, New Year’s celebrations were held in the Spring; many of these ancient festivals lasted for several days and specifically focused on giving thanks for another planting season, tributes to the Gods, and renewing vows to the community.
In European culture, the New Year’s celebrations evolved from the early Babylonian influences and the conflict between the Catholic Church and the deeply rooted pagan festivals of old. Over time, the merger of pagan practices with Christian holidays, such with Christmas and Easter took place because the early church continued to observe its holidays with pagan celebrations. Originally New Year’s Day was celebrated as the Feast of Christ’s Circumcision.
In the first centuries, the Romans continued to recognize New Year's festivals. The early Catholic Church condemned the festivities as paganistic. But as Christianity became more widespread, the early church observed its holidays alongside pagan celebrations. Ultimately mergers of pracitces took place. Christmas and Easter are two familiar holidays inwhich pagan rituals were incorporated into Christian holidays. New Year's Day was no different.
During the Medieval Times, the Church continued to oppose celebrating New Years, but over the past 400 years, the practice of celebrating New Years has become a standard in the Western World.
January 1 as the Start of the New Year
In the years around 2000 BC, the Babylonian New Year began with the first New Moon (after the first day of Spring (Vernal Equinox). The time of blossoms marked the time of seasonal rebirth. This was an apt start for marking the New Year. However, the world changed and Rome came into power. Originally tolerating the Babylonian New Year practice, the Romans, in developing the Julian Calendar, altered the world view and changed the first day of the year from some time in Spring to January 1st. For the Roman calendar, the first day of the month was named for the God Janus, who served as the god of doors and gates. He had two faces for looking back and ahead. Caesar believed that January would be the right month to "open" the year. Since that time, New Year’s celebrations which had marked the start of harvest time became a winter celebration and celebratory drinking.
Baby as a Symbol of New Year
The tradition of using a baby to signify the New Year was begun in Greece around 600 BC. The Greeks held celebrations to their God of wine and fertility, Dionysus. Consistent with other practices that related to harvests, the Greeks represented their God of fertility and rebirth by parading a baby in a basket through the streets. Through the ages, the Church, which originally opposed the practice, relented. And, the use of babies as a symbol of the New Year became common place. The practice spread throughout Europe and eventually found its way to the New World
When people say resolutions, most people think New Year's. The practice of making resolutions dates back to the early Babylonians' New Year's celebrations. During these first New Year’s festivals, the early Babylonians would resolve to do certain things. One of the most popular resolutions of their time was to return borrowed farm equipment. Today, people resolve to do everything from lose weight to getting out of debt.
While Scottish celebration of Hogmanay has influenced many of our modern traditions, its own legacy dates back to paganism. In ancient times, New Year’s Day traditions dealt with concerns about bad omens and evil spirits. In those times, it was believed that noise could ward off evil spirits. So, it was common for New Year celebrators to make tremendous noises to scare off the spirits. The practice evolved from noises to firing guns to fireworks and noisemakers.
Peas, Greens, and More
Many parts of the world, people have traditional menus for this first day of the year. In the United States specifically, traditions include eating black-eyed peas and greens. Peas are considered good luck and represent prosperity. Greens, which include cabbage, kale and collards, are eaten to represent dollars, luck, and prosperity as well. In other regions, the use of pork or rice is included, because each is also associated with luck. These practices also date back to ancient times.
Other than meats and greens, other foods are eaten on New Years. Our favorite the doughnut is one of those. Many cultures believe that anything in the shape of a ring is good luck. As a result, Dutch believe that eating donuts on New Year's Day will bring good fortune.
From singing Auld Lang Syne and inviting friends to share time with you at New Years, the celebrations of the first holiday of the year has many customs linked to pagan pasts. While not all cultures celebrate New Year at the same time or in the same way, each recognizes the significance of rebirth, hope and community.