Every year, millions of people celebrate New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
The annual event is among the oldest and most universally observed celebrations in the world and typically includes parties, rituals, parades, fireworks, resolutions and other traditions. How did it start?
The earliest recorded New Year celebration took place in ancient Babylon some 4,000 years ago. The beginning of the new year was marked by the first new moon after the vernal equinox, sometime in late March, and was celebrated with an 11-day festival called Akitu.
In the 21st century, New Year’s Day is its own holiday or special day, especially in the West. It doesn’t depend on natural or religious events but on national, cultural and spiritual traditions.
Why January 1?
New Year’s Day wasn’t always celebrated on January 1. The Babylonians observed it in the spring. The Egyptians, Phoenicians and Persians celebrated it on the fall equinox. For the Greeks the new year started on the winter solstice.
The Julian Calendar
The Romans kicked off the new year in March until 46 B.C., when emperor Julius Caesar introduced the sun-based Julian calendar. He established January 1 as the first day of the year, honoring the Roman god of gateways and beginnings, Janus, whose two faces allowed him to see the past and future at the same time.
The early Roman calendar, which according to tradition was created in the eighth century B.C. by Romulus, founder of Rome, was a lunar-based calendar that consisted of 304 days split into 10 months, with each year starting at the vernal equinox or the beginning of spring in March. In 700 B.C., King Numa Pompilius added the months of January and February. This calendar eventually fell out of sync with the sun and was replaced by the Julian calendar.
We can see the remnants of the early Roman calendar in the names of the months of September, October, November and December. These were originally positioned as the seventh through 10th months, so their names were based on the Latin words septem, octo, novem and decem, which mean seven, eight, nine and 10 in Latin.
Too Pagan for Medieval Europe
By the Middle Ages, Europeans considered New Year celebrations pagan and unchristian. In 567 A.D., the Council of Tours of the Roman Catholic Church abolished January 1 as the beginning of the year. New Year’s Day was observed on December 25 (birth of Jesus), March 1 (start of spring), or March 25 (Feast of the Annunciation and Easter), depending on location.
The Gregorian Calendar
Due to a miscalculation in the Julian calendar—which measured the solar cycle at 365.25 days instead of 365.242199 days, an error of 11 minutes per year—by the 16th century, the Julian calendar had drifted with respect to the equinoxes. In October 1582, Pope Gregory XIII replaced it with the Gregorian calendar, which used leap years to make the average year 365.2425 days long. The pope also restored January 1 as the start of the new year.
Most Catholic countries promptly adopted the new calendar, while Protestant countries took longer to follow it. The British, for example, did not adopt the reformed calendar until 1752, and had continued celebrating New Year’s Day in March. Other countries waited much longer: Russia and Turkey didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1918 and 1927, respectively.
Nowadays, most countries follow the Gregorian calendar and celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1.
The New Year’s Day for the Coptic Egyptians and the Ethiopians occurs on September 11 in most years and September 12 in the years before Gregorian leap years. The Sotho people of Lesotho and South Africa celebrate it on August 1.
In China the new year starts on the new moon that appears sometime between January 21 and February 20, while in Cambodia and Thailand New Year’s Day is celebrated on April 13 or 14. Christians in India celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1, while Hindus observe it at different times, depending on the region.
In the Middle East, the first day of the year is observed on first month in the Islamic calendar, which is a lunar calendar and which puts New Year’s Day sometime in the fall.
Whether you celebrate New Year’s Day in January, March or September, the start of a new year is something worth celebrating. It brings friends and relatives together and honors old traditions.