The Church and the New Year
Ancient Babylonians first celebrated the New Year about 4,000 years ago, but not on the first of January. Instead the Babylonian New Year began with the first New Moon after the first day of spring or the middle of March. The Babylonian New Year’s celebration lasted for eleven days, with each day having its unique celebration.
The Romans continued the custom of observing the New Year in March, but several of their emperors adjusted the calendar so vigorously that it fell out of synchronization with the sun. In 153 B.C., the Roman senate decreed that January 1 was the beginning of the New Year. This didn’t discourage the emperors from calendar tampering. They continued to adjust the calendar until in 46 BC, Julius Caesar, established the Julian calendar which again denoted January 1 as the New Year. In order to synchronize the calendar with the sun, Caesar had to extend the previous year to 445 days.
Although the Romans continued celebrating the New Year into the first centuries AD, the early Catholic Church decreed that New Year’s festivities were pagan. As Christianity became more widespread, the church held its own religious observances alongside many of the pagan celebrations. The Church continued to oppose celebrating New Year’s into the Middle Ages, and finally on February 24, 1582, Pope Gregory XIII signed a decree introducing the Gregorian calendar, also known as the Western calendar and Christian calendar. Western countries now officially celebrated New Year’s Day on January 1.
The New Year’s Baby
In Greece around 600 BC, the celebration of Dionysus, the god of wine, created the tradition of using a baby to symbolize the New Year. Revelers would honor Dionysus by parading a baby in a basket to represent his annual rebirth as the spirit of fertility. Early Egyptians also used a baby to represent rebirth.
The early Christian Church denounced the New Year’s baby as a pagan symbol, but ordinary people interpreted the baby as a symbol of rebirth and renewal. The New Year’s baby continued grow in popularity and eventually the church reconsidered its position. The Church finally allowed Christians to celebrate the New Year with a baby, but it firmly declared the baby symbolized the birth of the Baby Jesus, not the Baby New Year.
German immigrants brought the image of a baby with a New Year’s banner representing the New Year to America. They had used this symbol since the fourteenth century and introduced the custom to their new neighbors.
Celebrating New Year’s Traditions
During the 500 years of celebrating the New Year on January 1, many New Year traditions have evolved, including spending New Year’s Eve with family and friends, eating traditional New Year foods, and making New Year’s resolutions.
New Year’s lore has it that a person had shape his or her luck for the next year by eating carefully on the first day of the year. The custom of welcoming in the New Year with family and friends coincides with eating and drinking, New Year’s Eve parties often last all night.
Another New Year’s tradition says that the first visitor on New Year’s Day brings either good or bad luck for the rest of the year. If the first New Year’s Day visitor happens to be a tall, dark haired man, the year will be filled with good fortune.
People eat traditional New Year’s foods to bring good luck in the year ahead. In some cultures, ring shaped objects are considered to bring good luck because the ring symbolizes a full circle, or completing a year’s cycle. The Dutch believe that eating donuts on New Year’s Day brings good luck.
In some parts of the United States, Americans eat black eyed peas and either hog jowls or ham to welcome in the New Year. People think that peas and other legumes bring good luck and ham is considered to be lucky because it denotes prosperity. Other people eat cabbage on New Year’s Day because cabbage leaves represent paper currency and are a sign of prosperity. In some parts of America, rice is considered to be the lucky food to eat on New Year’s Day.
The Tournament of Roses Parade
The Pasadena Valley Hunt Club presented its first staged Tournament of Roses parade in 1890, when club members decorated their carriages with flowers to celebrate the ripening of the orange crop and since then the parade has taken place in Pasadena every New Year’s Day unless January 1 falls on a Sunday. In that case, it is held on the following Monday, January 2. The Tournament of Roses Association Web site says this no Sunday policy was put in place “to avoid frightening the hoses tethered outside local churches and thus interfering with worship services.”
The Rose Bowl Parade has never taken place on Sunday and the Rose Bowl Game is also not held on Sunday to avoid clashing with the National Football League.
New Year’s Resolutions
The tradition of New Year’s Resolutions goes back to the early Babylonians whose most popular resolution was resolving to return borrowed farm equipment. Modern people make New Year’s Resolutions that include spending more time with family and friends, quitting smoking or drinking or both, getting fit and out of debt, learning something new, helping others, and enjoying life more.
Resolutions for a More Historically Aware New Year
Spend More Time with Family & Friends, both past and present. Resolve to begin working on your family tree this year or research at least one ancestor enough to tell a story about his or her life.
Quit Smoking or Drinking or Both. Spend an hour researching the history of tobacco and discovering whether it was Captain John Smith, John Rolfe or the Native Americans who introduced it to the colonists. Spend another hour researching Prohibition stories in your area.
Get Fit or Out of Debt. Do an hour’s worth of on line research about the history of gymnasiums, including the one on the Titanic. Take an on line look at Thomas Jefferson’s debt and how it affected his life and Monticello.
Learn something new. Learn one new fact about the historical category of your choice and ponder how that fact can be tied in with today’s history.
Help Others. Find a helping person in history and tell that person’s story to someone else. The historical roll of helpers is endless. Clara Barton, Albert Schweitzer, Raoul Wallenberg, Eleanor Roosevelt are just a few.
Enjoy Life More. Resolve to stop being a “temporal provincial” to use the term that Michael Crichton coined in his 1999 historical novel “Timeline.” Thinking about your life in its historical context and imagining the lives of other people in their eras are mind and soul expanding.
Celebrating the New Year at the Museum
In recent years historical museums and museums of other persuasions have cast off their stuffed shirt, no party images and become partying places for New Year’s Eve and fun field trips for New Year’s Day. Spending a family friendly New Year’s Eve watching fireworks from the balcony of the Independence Seaport Museum or participating in the fun activities that historical and children’s museums are increasingly offering for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day creates your own New Year’s traditions.
Just a Few New Year’s Eve Museum Celebrations