How ancient civilizations conceived the New Year and why we celebrate it

Humanity has always relied upon cycles to understand their existence. New Year celebrations have evolved but the essence remains the same.

Celebrating the end of the passing year and the coming of the new one has been one of the most ancient festivities around the world. It's estimated that at least for the past four millennia, human beings have celebrated the New Year; however, it hasn't always meant the same nor celebrated on the same date. Different civilizations followed their own calendars meaning that the rituals devoted to the welcoming of the new year happened on different dates; however, as we'll see, even today, we share some of the same principles regarding New Year.

First New Year celebration in history

According to historical records, the first account of a New Year celebration dates back to over 4 thousand years ago in ancient Babylon. This civilization celebrated the first new moon after the vernal equinox in a festival called Akitu. This happened in late March, the day that had exactly the same amount of sunlight and darkness.


Akitu lasted 11 days in which several rituals were held; on one of these days, the Babylonians celebrated the Marduk, God of the sky, and his victory over the Goddess Tiamat. This celebration had also an important political background since it was then when kings were crowned or their rightful title as governors renewed.

We can also thank the Ancient Babylonians for the idea of New Year's resolutions. Within the festivities of Akitu, citizens would make spoken resolutions to welcome the new year. This tradition would be retaken in the 1740s by the Methodist church and would become an essential moment in the festivities for people to renew their commitments to God.


New Year synchronized with agriculture

Like the Babylons, many other civilizations had their own sophisticated calendars based on their agricultural and astronomical cycles. Some cultures shared similar dates to the Babylonians, considering the end of the year in March with the welcoming of the spring and the renewal of nature, while others were more closed to the winter solstice, like the Chinese. In Egypt, it was considered that the year started with the annual flooding of the Nile River; that event happened at the same time as the rising of the Sirius star. As so, each culture determined its calendars and thus their religious festivities following nature. For that reason, celebrating the welcoming of a new year was of utmost importance for their lives.

January 1 as the beginning of the year

As history progressed, the calendars became more and more exact. The ancient Romans had a 10-months calendar that consisted of 304 days. The beginning of the year coincided then with the vernal equinox in March. This calendar was allegedly created by no other than Romulus, one of Rome's founders, around the 8th century BC. Centuries later, the months Januarius and Februarius were added creating a 12-month calendar. However, it wouldn't be until the year 46th BC, when they would create a calendar quite similar to the one we use today (Gregorian).


Julius Caesar saw that as centuries passed, their current calendar had some issues synchronizing with the equinoxes. In an attempt to solve the matter, he gathered a team of scholars, including astronomers and mathematicians, to create a new and more precise calendar. It came to be known as the Julian calendar. To come up with this new calendar, they added 90 more days, thus synchronizing it with the phases of the sun. With this new calendar, it was then decided that the first day of the year would be January 1 to celebrate Janus, the Roman God of new beginnings. His common representation was of a double-faced figure capable of looking both to the past and the future. To honor Janus and the new year, Romans offered sacrifices and exchanged gifts. They would also decorate their homes with laurel branches and host big parties.

Medieval New Year

During the Middle Ages, the Catholic church tried to replace the beginning of the new year and associate it with more important dates in their ecclesiastical calendars. Both Christmas and Annunciation Day (March 25) were considered key dates for the matter. Let's not forget that both dates are close to the spring and winter solstice and would carry on with the ancient symbolism of agriculture with the new year. However, this meant a problem of calculation when it came to the calendar and, by the 16th century, a new calendar, reestablished by Pope Gregory XIII, determined that the year started on January 1. That, as you might've guessed is the Gregorian Calendar, the one that we still follow.


What's important about this story is that as humans we've always found it imperative to govern our lives through cycles that give us the chance to start over. While the lives of most of us aren't really ruled by astronomical and agricultural processes, we still have that inherent need to close and open new cycles. That's what we should focus on every New Year's Eve; on reflecting on our actions on the past year and moving on to a new beginning.

Photos from Wikimedia Commons

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