The history of celebrating the arrival of a new year

Dec 30, 2016

New Year’s Day and the name for the first month of the year, known these days as January, each stem from ancient Rome.

As EarthSky.org reports, New Year’s Day comes from an ancient Roman custom, the feast of the Roman god Janus, the god of doorways and beginnings. The name for the month of January also comes from Janus, who was depicted as having two faces, one that looked back into the past and the other that peered into the future. 

According to the History Channel's website, History.com, the earliest recorded festivities in honor of a new year’s arrival date back some 4,000 years to ancient Babylon, at which time the first new moon following the vernal equinox, which occurs in late March when the amount of daylight equals the amount of darkness, marked the event.

It wasn’t until 46 B.C that January 1 officially became the first day of the year. Julius Caesar instituted this as part of his reform of the early Roman calendar, which fell out of sync with the sun. Caesar solved the problem by consulting with astronomers and mathematicians, introducing the Julian calendar, which closely resembles the Gregorian calendar used by most countries today. Caesar instituted January 1 as the first day of the year to honor the month’s namesake, Janus.

And January is just logical for a new beginning, as it follows the December solstice on December 21, the shortest day of the year, which makes way for days that get longer and longer.

Nowadays, several traditions accompany ringing in the New Year.

In Spain, people bolt down a dozen grapes symbolizing their hopes for the New Year right before midnight on December 31, and in other parts of the world, a traditional New Year’s dish features legumes thought to resemble coins and hearken future financial success.

Ring-shaped cakes and pastries accompany celebrations in the Netherlands, Mexico, Greece and other countries, because they signify that the year has come full circle.

And whoever finds an almond hidden inside rice pudding can expect 12 months of good fortune in Sweden and Norway.

And of course, in the U.S., there’s the iconic dropping of the brightly patterned giant ball at the stroke of midnight in New York City’s Times Square celebration, which has taken place almost every year since 1907.