New Year traditions – 4,000 years in the making

In most places around the world, December 31st means one thing – ringing out the old and ringing in the new year.

New Year’s Eve, for most of us is held on this day, the last day of the Gregorian calendar, and will continue into the early hours of January 1st. But, have you ever wondered where our traditions come from and how long this has been going on ?

Initially, the celebration was timed to fall at the same time as the spring equinox – march 1st but it was the Roman emperor Julius Caesar who first established January 1st as New Year’s day.  But, in the medieval period, the churches frowned upon many of the roman celebrations and regarded Annunciation Day – March 25 – as the beginning of the year. (the day they claim angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was ‘of child’ to Jesus.)

It is said that William the Conqueror decreed that the English return to the date established by the Romans (January 1st) and the date changed yet again when Pope Gregory XIII overturned the decision some five hundred years on. There were various dates celebrated in the UK until finally, as recently as 1752, everyone finally agreed that the new year would commence on 1st January.

While common traditions these days include attending parties, making resolutions for the new year and watching fireworks displays – the hope that the year gone and all its troubles are over will be superceded by a new year with new fortunes. This gives rise to people across the world celebrating in their own unique ways but one thing that is common to most, if not all is that of resolving to change and improve ourselves and any bad habits we might’ve formed.

The tradition of making New Year’s resolutions, can be traced back almost as long too as the ancient Babylonians were making promises 4,000 years ago. They were also the first to hold recorded celebrations in honor of the new year—though for them the year began in mid-March, when their crops were planted.

Their festival known as Akitu, lasted 12-days at which time they crowned a new king or reiterated their loyalty to the reigning king. They also made promises to the gods to pay their debts and return any objects they had borrowed. The Babylonians believed that if they didn’t keep their resolutions, the gods would no longer favour them.

In ancient Rome, emperor Julius Caesar tinkered with the calendar and established January 1st as the beginning of the new year circa 46 B.C. Named after Janus, the two-faced god who they believed looked backwards into the previous year and ahead into the future – the Romans would also offer sacrifices to the deity and made promises of good conduct for the coming year.

For early Christians, the first day of the new year became the traditional occasion for thinking about one’s past mistakes and resolving to do and be better in the future and religious ceremonies were introduced included readings from Scriptures and hymn singing.

Today, the date seems to carry less religious significance and New Year’s resolutions are mostly undertaken privately with many of us making resolutions to improve our outlook on life, well being, give up smoking, get fitter and the likes..

Sadly, only a tiny percentage are believed to be successful in achieving these goals. But it doesn’t hurt to try as “you’ve got to be in it to win it” — and since we’ve had about 4,000 years of practice then even a small percentage each year should add up to a significant amount of successes.