Out with the old, in with the new. Two common images of New Year’s Eve are Baby New Year and Father Time. The first personifies rebirth and new beginnings, while the latter represents time, wisdom and endings. Both have their roots in mythology and tradition.
Baby New Year is depicted as a chubby baby wearing only a diaper, a sash across his torso showing the year on it and, sometimes, a top hat. Father Time is shown as an old man in a robe carrying a scythe and an hourglass, showing the inevitable passage of time.
Throughout the year, Baby New Year grows up until he becomes Father Time. On New Year’s Eve, Father Time passes on his wisdom to the next Baby New Year.
History of Baby New Year
Baby New Year has appeared in the arts and media throughout the world for hundreds of years. In the U.S., the baby has been a holiday staple since the dawn of the 20th century, when Indianapolis-based Saturday Evening Post in 1907 began publishing humorous illustrations of babies on the covers of its year-end editions.
After more than 300 covers, the magazine ended its New Year’s baby series in 1943, but by then Baby New Year had become part of American pop culture, showing up in New Year’s Eve parties, holiday greeting cards and radio and TV shows.
But Baby New Year is not exactly American. His origins go way back to the Old World.
Baby New Year Is Greek
The use of a baby as a representation of the New Year goes as far back as 600 B.C. in ancient Greece. When celebrating the annual rebirth of Dionysus—the god of wine and fertility—the Greeks paraded an infant in a basket throughout the town to represent the god’s birth.
Early Christians, who initially rejected the pagan tradition, eventually adopted it and began using the image of a baby to celebrate New Year’s Day, often represented by an infant Jesus.
In the 19th century, newspaper cartoonists secularized the baby.
Baby New Year Title
The title of Baby New Year sometimes is given to the first baby born in a village, city or country, and a contest is held to name the baby. Hospitals used to announce the first-born baby of the year, but concerns about privacy and safety have done away with that custom.
Who Is Father Time?
Father Time is the personification of time, experience and wisdom. He’s depicted as an elderly man with a gray or white beard, long hair with a balding head, dressed in a robe that sometimes has a hood. He’s usually carrying a scythe, which symbolizes the cyclical nature of life, and an hourglass or some other timekeeping device to signal the passage of time.
In New Year’s Eve tradition, Father Time symbolizes the old year that hands over the New Year to a baby. For the next 365 days, the baby grows into an old man, and the cycle continues.
In modern depictions, Father Time looks like a frail old man, but in the past he was shown as a strong middle-aged man.
Origins of Father Time
The origins of the Father Time aren’t entirely clear, but researchers and historians trace his roots back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.
In ancient Greece, Father Time emerged from an agricultural society and mythology. He was known as Chronos—the personification of time—and Cronos, Cronus or Kronos, the god of time and agriculture. Cronus was the son of Uranus (sky) and Gaia (earth) and the father of Zeus, Hades, Hera, Poseidon, Hestia, Chiron and Demeter.
After the Roman Empire conquered Greece, Roman and Greek mythology fused to form new allegories. The Romans took Cronus to be Saturn, their god of plenty, wealth, agriculture, periodic renewal and liberation. He was typically depicted as a strong and ruthless man, sometimes devouring one of his children to avoid being overthrown by them, as prophesized.
Centuries later, Renaissance artists borrowed the symbols associated with these gods to form the Grim Reaper, a personification of death, usually illustrated as a skeletal figure wearing a black hooded cloak and holding a scythe. Father Time and Grim Reaper are not the same, but they’re frequently shown together as companions. It makes sense: the passage of time eventually leads to death.
By the 18th century, beaten by religion and time itself, Father Time was starting to look like the old man we know today.
So this New Year’s Eve, don’t forget about these two personages who have stood the test of time, quite literally. Include Baby New Year and Father Time in your party theme and decorations.