You might be surprised to know that New Year’s has a long, ancient history; in fact, the earliest recorded celebration to honour the new year is believed to date back some 4,000 years – in 2,000 BC – to ancient Babylon.
According to history, these Babylonians celebrated the new year at the first new moon after the vernal equinox (usually around late March) with an 11-day festival called Akitu which involved a different ritual on each of its days.
The holiday celebrated the mythical victory of the sky god Marduk over the sea goddess Tiamat, and also involved the act of either crowning a new king or allowing the old king to continue his rule. Either way, this 11-day festival would probably have put our current New Year’s Eve parties to shame!
Though the date of New Year’s Day is obvious to us now, the holiday wasn’t always celebrated in January. Throughout time, different civilizations typically welcomed the new year during a significant astronomical or agricultural event – like the Romans who celebrated in March, following their lunar cycle – until 46 BC, when the emperor Julius Caesar introduced the Julian Calendar.
Honouring the month’s namesake Janus – the Roman god of beginnings whose two faces allowed him to look simultaneously into the past and the future – Caesar instituted 1 January as the first day of the year.
On this newly dated holiday, the Romans celebrated not only by offering sacrifices to Janus, but also by exchanging gifts, attending parties and decorating their homes with laurel branches.
Today, the New Year is celebrated in different ways all around the world, but typical New Year’s traditions include everything from toasting with champagne and eating foods thought to bestow good luck to making resolutions for the coming year – a practice that’s actually thought to have originated from the ancient Babylonians!
As for that age-old custom of kissing your loved one at the stroke of midnight, this tradition is thought to have been passed down from English and German folklore which held that the first person you encountered in the New Year would determine the year’s destiny. Eventually, the tradition evolved over time to actually choosing who you wanted the year’s good luck to be shared with.
Many other countries have traditions that might be lesser well-known – for instance, in Columbia people wear brand-new yellow underwear to ring in the New Year, and also run around the house (or block) with a suitcase to ensure that the upcoming year is filled with travel. The Danes jump off chairs at the stroke of midnight to literally ‘leap’ into a luck-filled new year, while people in Spain practice the custom of eating 12 grapes at or before midnight!