New Year’s; History.com Editors; HISTORY; https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/new-years; accessed Dec. 20, 2022; A&E Television Networks; last updated Dec. 20, 2022; originally published Feb. 16, 2010.
Civilizations around the world have been celebrating the start of each new year for at least four millennia. Today, most New Year’s festivities begin on December 31 (New Year’s Eve), the last day of the Gregorian calendar, and continue into the early hours of January 1 (New Year’s Day). Common traditions include attending parties, eating special New Year’s foods, making resolutions for the new year and watching fireworks displays.
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 first new moon following the vernal equinox—the day in late March with an equal amount of sunlight and darkness—heralded the start of a new year. They marked the occasion with a massive 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. In addition to the new year, Atiku celebrated the mythical victory of the Babylonian sky god Marduk over the evil sea goddess Tiamat and 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.
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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. Even today, though, most countries still use the more modern Gregorian calendar.
As part of his reform, Caesar instituted Jan. 1 as the first 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 and forward into the future.
In medieval Europe, Christian leaders temporarily replaced Jan. 1 as the first of the year with days carrying more religious significance, such as December 25 (the anniversary of Jesus’s birth) and March 25 (the Feast of the Annunciation). Pope Gregory XIII reestablished Jan. 1 as New Year’s Day in 1582.
New Year’s traditions and celebrations from around the world
In Spain and several other Spanish-speaking countries, right before midnight people bolt down a dozen grapes symbolizing their hopes for the months ahead.
In the Netherlands, Mexico, and Greece, ring-shaped cakes and pastries, a sign that the year has come full circle, round out the feast.
In Cuba, Austria, Hungary, and Portugal, because pigs represent progress and prosperity, pork appears on the New Year’s Eve table.
In Sweden and Norway, rice pudding with an almond hidden inside is served on New Year’s Eve in the belief that whoever finds the nut can expect 12 months of good fortune.
The practice of making resolutions for the new year is thought to have first caught on among the ancient Babylonians, who made promises to earn the favor of the gods and start the year off on the right foot. (They reportedly vowed to pay off debts and return borrowed farm equipment.)
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