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How New Year Came to Exist


Imagine! New Year has already begun. Now comes the time when everyone writes the date wrong...but we'll get used to all of this. Before I get started with the post, I have to wish you all a happy New Year any everything that goes along with that as well as all the best in 2014.

Inspired by a New Year's wish from a friend, I realized how unusual it was for me to celebrate the New Year on January 1 since the Pagan New Year had already passed. I celebrated the start of my New Year on Samhain (October 31). Nevertheless, you simply can't avoid the fuss around the "traditional" New Year which is celebrated on January 1 in most countries.

But how is it possible that I celebrate the start of the New Year on one date, another culture/religion on another date and another culture on a completely different continent on yet another date? And not to mention all the past civilizations which again had their own calendars. 

This leads us to the two main questions of this post:
How did the New Year come to exist?
Why do the majority of people celebrate it on January 1?

In order to answer these questions, I have to look back about 2000 years.

Babylonian New Year

History remembered the birth of the Babylonian civilization in about 2000 BC. They are usually mentioned as the first culture to ever have celebrated New Year. For them, as with most cultures throughout history, the New Year was connected with new beginnings, and thus is the spring equinox when nature simply comes to life; when the flowers bloom and animals wake up from their winter slumber. This equinox falls somewhere between March 21 and 23, although this was later rounded off to March 25 in other religions. But more on that later. The Babylonians didn't celebrate the New Year on the spring equinox itself but rather on the first new Moon after it. This had an even stronger symbolism because the new Moon (i.e. the "dark Moon") itself is associated with new beginnings and, in a way, the year being seen as a sort of tabula rasa. Besides, spring doesn't start on that day only; it arrives slowly throughout a longer period of time.

A supposed depiction of the goddess
Tiamat in the shape of a sea
serpent (Neo-assyrian relief,
cca. 900-750 BC) 
The Babylonians were very aware that the New Year brings new beginnings, though. In fact, they actually celebrated the fact that they survived another year. Namely, the Babylonians revered the goddess Tiamat which was simultaneously the creator of everything but also the goddess of chaos and destruction. According to the epic poem Enuma elish, Tiamat wanted to destroy all life, but the god Marduk stopped here (you can read a more detailed retelling of the myth  here). On New Year, the Babylonians basically celebrated Tiamat's destruction out of which new life came to be (the sky from her upper half, the land from her lower half, the rivers Euphrates and Tigris from her tears and so on). Their New Year's celebration lasted for 11 whole days!

New Year for the Inca and Maya

The end of June in Europe is marked by the summer solstice which is, in our minds, directly linked to the concept of the longest day of the year (and also the shortest night). This day varies from June 21 and 23. The solstice is completely the opposite in the entire southern hemisphere (and also in Peru where the Inca came from). The day of the summer solstice was actually the shortest day in the year for the Inca (as it still is in the southern hemisphere). Since they worshiped the Sun, they decided that this day should be the beginning of their New Year because from that day onward, the Sun would start to regain its strength and basically be born again.

The Maya felt it was better to celebrate the New Year in the middle of July because around this time, the Sun would pass directly over them. This is specific for the tropical zone, a part of which is Central America (where the Maya settled).

The Roman New Year

The Roman year originally had 10 months; it started on March 1 and finished at the end of December. The months that we now know as January and February simply weren't a part of their calendar. This was because the Romans governed themselves according to agriculture and since the land was frozen and barren during these two months (so basically completely inactive), they didn't see the need in counting these days. 

The Roman king Numa Pompilus (753-673 BC), the second Roman king (not emperor!) and Romulus' successor was inspired by the Egyptians and decided to add two additional months to their calendar in the 8th century.

It wasn't until 153 BC that the Roman Senate chose January 1 as the beginning of the New Year. This decision wasn't based on nature or agriculture but on religion (like I said, this was a cold, infertile time of the year and it must have been difficult for the Roman people to get used to this change). This was a religious day because it was dedicated to the Roman god Janus. He was the god of doors (especially the city gates), entrances and thus new beginnings. He was depicted with two heads looking in opposite directions. They symbolize that moment in time when one year passes into another and when we look back at our past but also towards our future. But, this decision wasn't completely implemented since some people still celebrated the New Year on March 1 as in "the old times". 

It was common for the Romans to take down the old laurel branches and put up new ones in their sacred spaces because they believed that they would bring luck in the following year. In time, the emperor started demanding presents made of laurel branches which was a symbol of loyalty. This tradition of gift-giving slowly became popular among the populace and the branches were soon replaced by terracotta lamps of slates with engraved wishes for a happy New Year. These presents were kept that whole year because they were believed to bring happiness and a lucky year. They were, in a sense, the predecessors of the greeting card.

A sculpture of Julius Caesar
An important turning point in human history was the creation of the Julian calendar in 45 BC. The Roman emperor Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) decided to make a new calendar based on the Sun's movements (as opposed to the previous one which was based on agriculture and lunar changes and was also very imprecise). The flaw of this calendar was that it took the length of the year to be the approximate length of the solar year (365.25 days). Even the Greeks knew that the year was a few minutes shorter than this. As a result, three additional days should have been added to the calendar every 400 years. This is why the Julian calendar is "13 days late" compared to the Gregorian calendar (which we use today). The most important decision for this post was Caesar's making January 1 the official date of the New Year (and this was non-negotiable). This date was soon accepted in the whole Roman Empire.   

New Year During the Middle Ages

With the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE, Europe entered a period which we today call the Middle Ages. This was a time when the Church gain power and Christianity grew. In time, any celebrations connected to the New Year started to be seen as "Pagan". This is why it was decided on the Second Council of Tours in 567 CE that New Year would no longer be celebrated on January 1.

Leonardo da Vinci - the Annunciation (cca. 1472-75 CE)
Now a new question was proposed: if January 1 isn't the beginning of the New Year, then which day is?

That which followed was very confusing. Nobody could decide whether to use the previous date of the New Year (March 1), or to define a new date. The Church decided it was best to take March 25 as the beginning of the New Year because this was the day of the Annunciation (exactly 9 months before Christ's birth on December 25). This didn't make sense to the British so they took December 25 as their New Year as a symbol of the rebirth of the year, a new period and new beginnings in general. This date is also very close to the winter solstice (which usually falls between December 21 and 23) which marks the shortest day of the year, but also represents the strengthening of the Sun and the prolongation of the day in the oncoming period.

Certain deviations occurred later on in Britain. For example, the New Year was once again determined to begin on January 1. This happened when William the Conqueror gained control over England. This date wasn't take for historical reasons, it was simply the date of his coronation. But after his death, the New Year was reverted back to March 25 in England.

The Gregorian Calendar

Lavinia Fontana - a portrait of
Pope Gregory XIII
It is also knows as the Christian calendar and has become the most widely accepted calendar in the western world. It was named after Pope Gregory XIII who pronounced it the official calendar in 1582. This was actually a reform of the Julian calendar and somewhat corrected its deflection from the actual length of the solar year (although a small deviations were still there). 

The main incentive for reforming the calendar was the Church's dissatisfaction with the date of Easter. Namely, Easter had always been connected to the spring equinox. According to the Julian calendar, it occurred much earlier in March than Easter. These two dates had to be conciliated so the correspond as much as possible. So, 10 days were taken from the Julian Calendar so that the spring equinox could fall on March 21. But, the Pope's main decision for this topic is naming January 1 the beginning of New Year again. 

This was accepted in all Catholic countries, but Protestant countries still were resistant. England didn't accept this date until 1752 (it was celebrated in March up to then) and the last country to fully accept the Gregorian calendar was Greece in 1923.

New Year in Other Faiths

The Jewish tradition of New Year is interesting because it isn't celebrated on one day but rather lasts for 10 days which fall between September 6 and October 5. This period begins with 2 days of celebration (called Rosh Hashanah) which are followed by a period of fasting and repentance. All of this leads to the last and most sacred day called Yom Kippur (the Day of Repentance).

The beginning of the New Year varies in Islamic countries. The Islamic calendar greatly differs from the Gregorian in that it is lunar (i.e. based on the phases of the Moon). Certainly, the Muslim New Year falls on the first day of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic calendar).

The Buddhist New Year also varies a great deal depending on the culture that celebrates it and also on the phases of the Moon. As the dates really do vary a lot, you can find out more about individual celebrations of each culture here

The Pagan New Year

It would be more precise to call it the "Neopagan" New Year, but whatever you call it, it is called Samhain (pronounced /'sowin/). According to the Gregorian calendar, it falls on the night between October 31 to November 1 and begins at sunset or October 31. This is the time wen autumn can really be felt and seen. Farmers will know that by this time, the harvest is usually collected and that the earth slowly falls into its infertile period. Then again, it is the collected harvest that enables everyone to really feast and celebrate!

Etymologically, the word Samhain is also the name for the month of November in Gaelic languages. Its roots are in the Old Irish word samain (also spelled samuin or samfuin) which literally means "the end of summer". We have to remember that the Celts divided the year into only two seasons: summer and winter in stead of the four seasons which we acknowledge today. For them, Beltane (May 1) marked the beginning of summer and the end of winter, while Samhain marked the beginning of winter and the end of summer.

Now you know why it was unusual for me to celebrate New Year on January 1 but also why it has become normal in the western world to celebrate it on precisely this day. :)

I would like to wish you all a happy New Year once more. May all your wishes come true, your health be good,  your ambitions fulfilled and may happiness fill your lives!
Yours,
Witch's Cat

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