Civilizations around the world seem to have been celebrating the start of each New Year for at least 4.000 years.The problem was that the day celebrated as New Year was changing as each new calendar was adopted. Today, most New Year’s festivities begin on December 31 (New Year’s Eve), the last day of the Gregorian calendar & continue into the early hours of January 1 - New Year’s Day.
Humbling the king
The earliest recorded festivities in honor of a New Year’s arrival date back some 4,000 years to ancient Babylon. For the Babylonians, the 1st new moon following the vernal equinox—the day in late March with an equal amount of sunlight & darkness—heralded the start of a New Year. They marked the occasion with a religious festival called Akitu (derived from the Sumerian word for barley, which was cut in the spring) that involved a different ritual on each of its 11 days. The Akitu festival was one of the oldest Mesopotamian festivals.
In addition to the New Year, Atiku celebrated the mythical victory of the Babylonian sky god Marduk over the evil sea goddess Tiamat & served an important political purpose: It was during this time that a new king was crowned or that the current ruler’s divine mandate was symbolically renewed. During this 12 day ceremonial event, which began at the first New Moon after the Spring Equinox in March/April, that a tradition took place in order to humble the king & remind him of his role to serve the will of the god Marduk in order to properly provide for the community. The head priest would strip the king of his regalia & vigorously slap him in the face. The Babylonians believed that if the king teared up, the god Marduk approved him to be king for another year.
Marduk of the City of Babylon. God of the sun & chief of all gods.
The celebration of the New Year on January 1st is a relatively new phenomenon. Throughout antiquity, civilizations around the world developed increasingly sophisticated calendars, typically pinning the 1st day of the year to an agricultural or astronomical event. In Egypt, for instance, the year began with the annual flooding of the Nile, which coincided with the rising of the star Sirius. The 1st day of the Chinese New Year, meanwhile, occurred with the second new moon after the winter solstice.One of the earliest recording of a New Year celebration is believed to have been in Mesopotamia, c. 2000 B.C. & was celebrated around the time of the vernal equinox, in mid-March. A variety of other dates tied to the seasons were also used by various ancient cultures. The Egyptians, Phoenicians, & Persians began their New Year with the fall equinox, & the Greeks celebrated it on the winter solstice.
The early Roman calendar designated March 1 as the New Year. The calendar had just 10 months, beginning with March. That the New Year once began with the month of March is still reflected in some of the names of the months. September through December, our ninth through twelfth months, were originally positioned as the seventh through tenth months (septem is Latin for "seven," octo is "eight," novem is "nine," & decem is "ten."
The 1st time the New Year was celebrated on January 1st was in Rome in 153 B.C. (In fact, the month of January did not even exist until around 700 B.C., when the 2nd king of Rome, Numa Pontilius, added the months of January & February.) The New Year was moved from March to January because that was the beginning of the civil year, the month that the two newly elected Roman consuls—the highest officials in the Roman republic—began their one-year tenure. But this New Year date was not always strictly & widely observed, & the New Year was still sometimes celebrated on March 1.
The early Roman calendar consisted of 10 months & 304 days, with each New Year beginning at the vernal equinox; according to tradition, it was created by Romulus, the founder of Rome, in the 8th century B.C. A later king, Numa Pompilius, is credited with adding the months of Januarius & Februarius. Over the centuries, the changing calendar fell out of sync with the sun, & in 46 B.C. the emperor Julius Caesar decided to solve the problem by consulting with the most prominent astronomers & mathematicians of his time. He introduced the Julian calendar, which closely resembles the more modern Gregorian calendar that most countries around the world use today. In order to realign the Roman calendar with the sun, Julius Caesar had to add 90 extra days to the year 46 B.C. when he introduced his new Julian calendar. Julius Caesar introduced a new, solar-based calendar that was a vast improvement on the ancient Roman calendar, which was a lunar system that had become wildly inaccurate over the years.
The Julian calendar decreed that the New Year would occur with January 1, & within the Roman world, January 1 became the consistently observed start of the New Year. As part of his reform, Caesar instituted January 1 as the 1st day of the year, partly to honor the month’s namesake: Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, whose two faces allowed him to look back into the past & forward into the future. Romans celebrated by offering sacrifices to Janus, exchanging gifts with one another, decorating their homes with laurel branches & attending raucous parties. In medieval Europe, Christian leaders temporarily replaced January 1 as the 1st of the year with days carrying more religious significance, such as December 25 (the anniversary of Jesus’ birth) & March 25 (the Feast of the Annunciation); Pope Gregory XIII reestablished January 1 as New Year’s Day in 1582.
Though Pope Gregory’s papal bull reforming the calendar had no power beyond the Catholic Church, Catholic countries—including Spain, Portugal and Italy—swiftly adopted the new system for their civil affairs. European Protestants, however, largely rejected the change because of its ties to the papacy, fearing it was an attempt to silence their movement. It wasn’t until 1700, that Protestant Germany switched over, & England held out until 1752. Orthodox countries clung to the Julian calendar until even later.
Romans generally would celebrate January 1st by offering sacrifices to Janus in the hope of gaining good fortune for the New Year, decorating their homes with laurel branches & attending raucous parties. This day was seen as setting the stage for the next 12 months, & it was common for friends & neighbors to make a positive start to the year by exchanging well wishes & gifts of figs & honey with one another.
As Christianity began to be celebrated by many in medieval Europe, however, the celebrations accompanying the New Year were considered pagan & unchristian like, & in 567 the Council of Tours abolished January 1 as the beginning of the year. At various times & in various places throughout medieval Christian Europe, the New Year was celebrated on Dec. 25, the birth of Jesus; March 1; March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation; & Easter.
The Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci (1472–1475) Uffizi Gallery.
In 1582, the Gregorian calendar reform restored January 1 as New Year's day. Although most Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar almost immediately, it was only gradually adopted among Protestant countries. The British did not adopt the reformed calendar until 1752. The Calendar (New Style) Act 1750 (c.23) (also known as Chesterfield's Act after Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield) was an Act of the Parliament of Great Britain. It reformed the calendar of England & British Dominions, so that the new legal year began on 1 January rather than 25 March (Lady Day); and it adopted the Gregorian calendar, as already used in most of western Europe. Until then, the British Empire —& its early American colonies— still celebrated the New Year on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation. The day was also known as Lady Day, because it celebrated the Virgin Mary.