Another year has arrived. It is a time of celebration for the present, of reflection for the past, and of hope for the future. In some areas, the beginning of the year marks new laws going into effect or the inauguration of some local officials. And it also means some retailers are now well into stocking for Valentine’s Day. The start of the year is marked with festivities around the world, but there are many different traditions surrounding the day.
Observances of the new year date back thousands of years as ancient peoples recognized the regular shifting patterns of stars at night and the sun in the day and their connection to particular seasons. In some societies, the vernal equinox, the beginning of spring in March, was seen as the beginning of the new year as well as the time to begin planting. The Babylonians were known as early as 2600 BC to mark this day with celebrations and new year’s resolutions.
The earliest observances of January 1 for the beginning of the year began with the Romans around 713 BC. The Romans named the first month of their lunar calendar year January after the Roman god Janus, who supposedly was the god of time and also the god of beginnings and transitions. According to legend, Janus had two faces, one looking into the past and the other looking into the future. The name for the month and the observance of the new year on January 1 remained as the Romans adapted their lunar calendar to the more accurate Egyptian solar calendar under Julius Caesar almost seven centuries later. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century AD, the Julian Calendar was kept intact – as was the month honoring the old Roman god.
In most countries throughout the world, January 1 is an official holiday to mark the beginning of the new year. Even many non-western countries will observe January 1 as New Year’s Day because of the overwhelming influence of European and American business and culture for the past few centuries as they ultimately adopted the Gregorian calendar. Many of these nations will thus observe their traditional new year celebrations on different days of the year in addition to January 1.
The Chinese New Year will not start until January 25. Under the Chinese Zodiac system dating back many centuries, this will mark the Year of the Rat, the beginning of a new cycle in their traditional twelve-year lunar calendar system. In China, fireworks are set off to mark the new year and to also scare off demons and forces of darkness.
Similarly, January 25 will mark the traditional Vietnamese New Year, known as Tet. The Vietnamese lunar calendar is very similar to the Chinese calendar. By tradition, a great feast is prepared, family reunions are held, and many celebrations are held in cities across the country. Many in Vietnam see Tet as the beginning of spring as well. Cleaning the home is also part of the traditional observances to symbolically clean out the bad spirits from the previous year.
Rosh Hashanah is the traditional Jewish New Year. It is a celebration lasting two days, and in 2020, it will be observed from sunset on September 18 through sunset on September 20. Among Muslims, the new year shifts with the lunar calendar, and the new year will be observed on August 20.
Different types of food are also associated with the New Year’s celebrations. In India, rice is eaten for prosperity in the new year. In Spain, people traditionally eat 12 grapes at midnight, one at each chime, to bring luck for the year. In the American South, black-eyed peas are eaten for good luck for the new year.
In some cultures, it is also customary to exchange gifts on New Year’s Day. In Ancient Persia, eggs were given as symbols of fertility in the new year. When observances of Christmas and religion were outlawed in the Soviet Union, Russians responded by shifting gift-giving from Christmas to New Year’s Day. In Scotland, gifts of silverware or pastries are traditionally given for luck. In the Philippines, Christmas and New Year’s Day are often combined.
There are many other superstitions for luck surrounding celebrations. In France, the weather on New Year’s Day is supposed to be an omen for the year’s weather. In Scotland, the first person to enter your home in the new year is also supposed to symbolize a person’s luck for the year. In the Philippines, revelers are supposed to leave their windows open to let the old year out and let the new year in. Brazilians wear white for good luck while households in Puerto Rico sprinkle sugar outside their homes to invite good fortune inside.
To this day, New Year’s Day is still a time to reflect on the past and look forward to the days ahead. With this new year, not only does the world begin a new year but also a new decade.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.