Getting back to the roots of New Year’s Day
Elyssa Parnell Staff Writer
NEWBERRY — We know that New Year’s Day is a holiday that kicks off the beginning of a brand new year. We may even have heard of Southern traditions such as eating black eyed peas and collard greens to bring us wealth in the upcoming year, or old wives tales such as not to wash clothes on New Years Day or you’d “wash” a member out of your family.
Despite these traditions, do we really know where the history of New Year’s Day comes from?
According to the History Channel’s website, history.com, New Year’s Day was celebrated for the first time in 45 B.C. on Jan. 1 as the Julian calendar took effect.
Not long after becoming Roman dictator, Julius Caesar decided that the traditional Roman calendar was in dire need of reform. The new Roman calendar, which was introduce around the seventh century B.C., attempted to follow the lunar cycle but frequently fell out of phase with the seasons and had to be corrected.
In addition to this, the pontifices, the Roman body charged with overseeing the calendar, often abused its authority by adding days to extend political terms or interfere with elections.
Caesar had the help of Sosigenes, an Alexandrian astronomer, to design the new calendar. Sosigenes advised Caesar to do away with the lunar cycle entirely and follow the solar year, similar to the Egyptians.
The year was calculated to be 365 and 1/4 days, with Caesar adding 67 days to 45 B.C., making 46 B.C. begin on January 1, rather than in March. Caesar also decreed that four years that a day should be added to February, which theoretically he felt would keep his calendar from falling out of step.
Shortly before Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C., he changed the name of the month Quintilis to Julius (July) after himself. Later, the month of Sextilis was renamed Augustus (August) after his successor.
An error of calculations
The celebration of New Year’s Day in January fell out of practice during the Middle Ages. Even those who strictly adhered to the Julian calendar did not observe the New Year exactly on January 1. This was because when Caesar and Sosigenes were designing their calendar, they failed to calculate the correct value for the solar year as 365.242199 days, not 365.25 days. Thus, an 11-minute-a-year error added seven days by the year 1000, and 10 days by the mid-15th century.
The Roman church soon discovered this error, and around 1570, Pope Gregory XIII had Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius to come up with a new calendar.
In 1582, the Gregorian calendar was implemented, omitting 10 days for that year and establishing the new rule that only one of every four centennial years should be a leap year. Since then, people around the world have gathered on January 1 to celebrate the precise arrival of the New Year.
The History Channel combined at list of five ancient New Year’s celebrations, which often had important social, political, and religious implications. Although ancient, the holiday traditions of some cultures were not too different from the champagne, parties, and fireworks used in today’s celebrations.
• Babylonian Akitu: The Babylonians would honor the the rebirth of the natural world with a multiple day festival called Akitu, which would follow the first new moon after the vernal equinox in late March. According to history.com, this early New Year’s celebration dates back to around 2000 B.C., and is believed to have been deeply intertwined with religion and mythology. During the Akitu, statues of the gods were paraded through the city streets, and rites were enacted to symbolize their victory over the forces of chaos. The Babylonians believed that through these rituals the world was symbolically cleansed and recreated by the gods in preparation for the new year and the return of spring.
• Ancient Roman Celebration of Janus: The Roman New Year, like the Babylonians,originally corresponded with the vernal equinox, but years of tampering with the solar calendar eventually saw the holiday established on its more familiar date of January 1. The month of January carried a special significance to the Romans because its name was derived from the two-faced deity Janus, the god of change and beginnings. Janus was symbolically seen as looking back to the old and ahead for the new, which they tied to the transition of changing from one year to the next.
On January 1, the Romans would celebrate by giving offerings to Janus in hopes of gaining good fortune for the upcoming year. It was also common for friends and neighbors to start the year off right by exchanging well wishes and gifts of figs and honey with one another.
Unlike most customs around here today, most Romans also chose to work for at least part of New Year’s Day, as they believed idleness was seen as a bad omen for the rest of the year.
• Ancient Egyptian Wepet Renpet: Because ancient Egyptian culture was closely tied to the Nile River, their new year corresponded with its annual flood. According the Roman writer Censorinus, the Egyptian New Year was predicted when Sirius — the brightest star in the night sky first became visible after a 70 day absence. The phenomenon typically occurred in mid-July, just before the annual flood of the Nile, which helped ensure that farmlands remained fertile for the coming year. According to the History Channel, Egyptians celebrated this new beginning with a festival known as Wepet Renpet, which means “opening of the year.”
• Chinese New Year: Believed to have originated over 3,000 years ago during the Shang Dynasty, the Chinese New Year is one of the oldest traditions still celebrated today. What began as a way of celebrating the new beginnings of the spring planting season, became entangled with myth and legend. According to one popular tale, there was once a bloodthirsty creature called Nian—now the Chinese word for “year”—that preyed on villages every New Year. In order to frighten the hungry beast, the villagers took to decorating their homes with red trimmings, burning bamboo and making loud noises. The ruse worked, and the bright colors and lights associated with scaring off Nian eventually became integrated into the celebration.
The festivities traditionally last 15 days and are centered on the home and on family. People clean their houses to rid them of bad luck, and some repay old debts as a way of settling the previous year’s affairs. The Chinese were also the first to celebrate the new year with fireworks, following the invention of gunpowder in the tenth century. Because Chinese New Year is still based on a lunar calendar dating back to the second millennium B.C., the holiday typically falls in late January or early February on the second new moon after the winter solstice.
• Nowruz: Still celebrated today in parts of Iran, as well as the Middle East and Asia, the roots of Nowruz (or “New Day”) reach far back into antiquity. Also called the Persian New Year, the 13-day spring festival falls on or around the vernal equinox in March and is believed to have originated in modern day Iran as part of the Zoroastrian religion. Most historians believe its celebration dates back at least as far as the 6th century B.C. and the rule of the Achaemenid Empire.
Ancient observances of Nowruz focused on the rebirth which comes with Spring. Monarchs would use the holiday to host lavish banquets, dispense gifts and hold audiences with their subjects. Other traditions included feasts, exchanging presents with family members and neighbors, lighting bonfires, dyeing eggs and sprinkling water to symbolize creation. It’s estimated that the celebrations are still observed by approximately 300 million people each year.
Elyssa Parnell can be reached at 803-276-0625, ext. 108 or at email@example.com.
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