Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year’s Day: One of the Planet’s Oldest Holidays

 By User: Ranveig [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
{Originally Posted at Fire and Hammer blog}

As a child I enjoyed a New Year’s Eve tradition involving Duck Soup. No not that kind of soup, I ended every year watching the 1933 movie staring the Marx Brothers. Back then WGN television out of Chicago broadcasted the movie as a part of its regular New Year’s Eve schedule. I watched this and a number of other old classics, taking a break as the clock approached 11pm. With New York in a different time zone, the ball at Times Square would drop marking the start of the New Year an hour before we celebrated in the Chicago area. To be honest after watching the festivities in New York our local celebration always seemed a bit anticlimactic.

According to one million people visit Times Square on December 31st. Billions more watch around the world as the descent of a Waterford Crystal ball marks both the end and a new beginning. In just over a century the Times Square celebration has become the evening’s star attraction but celebrating the start of a New Year dates back to a time long before Peter Minuite traded $24 worth of beads for Manhattan Island.

Babylonian Akitu Celebrations
Akitu (or Barley) was a Babylonian religious festival celebrated during the vernal equinox in the month of Nisannu (Nisan on the Jewish calendar; March/April on today’s calendar). The date marked the start of the New Year as well as the beginning of the growing season and the sowing of barley. Just over a week long, the celebration included a number of rituals mostly geared towards honoring the Babylonian gods. During the festival a sitting king would do penitence for his sins. If needed the country would crown a new king to start the year. Similar festivals were celebrated by other cultures, usually with heavy religious significance.

New Year’s on a Solar Calendar

Where most cultures used calendars based on a lunar year, Rome moved to a solar year sometime around 45BC.  Both calendars were designed to track growing seasons, however lunar calendars did not accurately reflect the realities of earth’s 365 day year. As a result governments randomly added and removed months in order to bring their lunar calendars back in sync with nature. In instating what would be known as the Julian calendar Julius Caesar established a calendar that was a close reflection of the growing seasons. He also established January 1st as the start of the year.

January was chosen as the first month of the year in order to honor the Roman god Janus, the god of beginnings. Janus was said to have two faces, one looking forward and one looking back making the New Year’s celebration a perfect reflection of the nature of this Roman deity. But while the Julian calendar gave a new anchor for the timing of the New Year’s celebration, it was also off by eleven minutes per year. By the 1500’s the calendar was a full ten days off from the natural growing seasons.

In response the Catholic Church, under direction by Pope Gregory XIII, set out to establish a new and more accurate calendar. Initially the church looked for other days on which to start the year for the new Gregorian Calendar. Eventually church leaders settled for continuing the practice of celebrating January 1st. Using the system common in southern Europe in which December 25th was counted as day 1, January 1st fell exactly eight days from the celebrated birth date for Jesus. By Jewish tradition this eighth day would have been when Jesus was circumcised. Thus the church had a built in explanation as to why it continued celebrating the start of the year on a date once used to honor a pagan god.

New Year’s Celebration Comes to New York

By linking the New Year’s celebration with the circumcision of Christ, Christians around the world had reason to celebrate. In New York during the 1800’s this celebration took place outside Lower Manhattan’s Trinity Church. Each year large crowds gathered in anticipation of hearing the church bells ring in the New Year. This tradition continued until 1904 when Alfred Ochs, owner of the New York Times, chose New Year’s Eve as the day to celebrate the newspaper’s move into its new home on a triangular shaped plot of land where Broadway, Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street meet.

Ochs’ celebration was an all day event, with a festival leading up to fireworks at midnight. The crowds returned on New Year’s Eve the next year to once again see fireworks. From there the celebration at Times Square was established. Eventually a ban on the use of fireworks during the celebration forced Ochs to come up with something new leading to the lowering of a large ball, a custom that continues today. The New York Times is no longer headquartered at One Times Square but the annual New Year’s celebration continues.

What is your New Year’s Tradition?

Whether you watched the ball drop or spent the evening watching old movies I wish you a Happy New Year as we celebrate one of our planet’s oldest holidays. May your 2015 be blessed.

For more on the history of New Years see:

For information on “Duck Soup” by the Marxs Bros. see

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