New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day – Encore!

There aren’t many myths about New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day celebrations, Buzzkillers. But most of us don’t give any thought to how the standard Western calendar came about, and how we ended up with those celebrations. So I thought we could end the year, and look forward to next year, with a little perspective on the impermanence of things we often think are eternal.

Observations of a new year go back at least as far as the ancient Babylonians. They decided that the first new moon following the vernal equinox (that’s the day in the spring when the amount of sunlight and darkness are equal) would be celebrated as the start of a new year. They had a huge religious festival lasting 11 days. If a new king was to be crowned it was done during this festival, and a sitting king would have his reign symbolically renewed.

Calendars across the ancient world were based on lunar and solar cycles, and sometimes on complicated mathematical relations between the two.

The Roman calendar became dominant in the ancient world. It had ten months and 304 days, and the new year began on the vernal equinox. But gradually the Roman calendar would fall out of sync with the sun and they continually had to make adjustments. In 46 B.C. Julius Caesar added 90 days to the calendar to put it in line with the solar year. He also named January 1st as the first day of the year. January was named after Janus, the Roman god of of beginnings and traditions. He also had two faces, one looking forward and one looking backward.

Roman New Year’s Celebrations included sacrifices to Janus, exchanging gifts, decorating their homes, and attending raucous parties.

China, of course, has ancient New Year’s celebrations. The traditional Chinese calendar is lunisolar (which works off both the lunar and the solar cycles). That means that Chinese New Year falls between January 21 and February 20th on any given year. The Chinese have it best when it comes to celebrations. New Year’s celebrations last fifteen days and are very colorful and festive.

Back in Europe, after the fall of the Roman Empire, Christian leaders didn’t necessarily follow the January 1st date of Julius Caesar. At various times and in various countries, monarchs and church leaders often chose dates they thought were more holy as New Year’s Day. These included December 25th (Jesus’s birth), March 25 (Feast of the Annunciation), and Easter (which was in March or April, depending on the year).

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII reestablished January 1st as New Year’s Day, when he established a new calendar to correct errors in the Julian calendar. Eventually named after him, the Gregorian calendar has become the dominant calendar in the modern world.

Observations continued as they had before, mainly celebrating renewal, rebirth and new beginnings. And we hope we’ll be renewing Buzzkilling throughout next year, and maybe even have some new beginnings!

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