New Year’s Day in some form or another is humankind’s oldest holiday. It dates back to the Babylonians, where an eleven day festival at the vernal equinox was held to celebrate the new year. There was great feasting and drinking to honor the bounty of the god Marduk, and on the sixth day a mummers play dedicated to the goddess of fertility. Then a huge parade beginning at the temple and ending on the outskirts of Babylon in an appointed “New Year House”. Early European farmers beat drums and blew horns to drive away evil spirits. In China, on the New Year the forces of light beat back the forces of darkness, and people celebrated by shooting off fireworks and clanging cymbals.
The New Year stayed at the vernal equinox, roughly March 25, for many years. When Julius Caesar revamped the calendar in 45 BCE, he selected January 1st as the beginning of the year because the month was named after the god Janus. Janus was the god of beginnings and transitions and has two faces, one looking forward and one looking backward.
In the 8th and 9th centuries, invading Vikings brought their New Year’s traditions to Scotland, which developed into Hogmanay. This was connected with the Norse celebration of Yule at the winter solstice. Because of this tie to Yule, medieval Christians considered New Year’s Eve to be a pagan holiday, so it was not celebrated. This backlash to the old pagan customs caused New Year’s Day to be moved again. Each country had it’s own date for the the new year. In England, it was March 25. In France, it was Easter Sunday. In Italy, it was Christmas Day. Only in Spain and Portugal was January 1 considered the start of the New Year. It took Europe 562 years for everyone to observe January 1 New Year’s Day, starting with Eastern Europe in 1362 and moving west ending with Greece in 1923.
In Scotland, Christmas was not celebrated by the strictly Protestant Kirk, so Hogmanay and New Year’s took it’s place. Family and friends gathered for feasting on New Year’s and exchanged gifts. From Hogmanay, we get the tradition of “first footing”. A tradition which has spread through Britain since the Union. The first person to enter through the front door of the house after the stroke of midnight should be a dark haired stranger. Originally he would have been a traveler. He should enter with his right foot first, and be carrying coal and a crust of bread, and wish you a prosperous new year. This would ensure warmth and food for the householder for the year to come. He was a symbol of good luck, and charity, and so the householder would spare him a small gift of a penny or a drink and a small meal. We sing a poem. “Old year out, New year in. Please will you give us a new years gift. if you havent got a penny, a Ha’penny will do. If you haven’t got a ha’penny, God Bless you” which has grown from the tradition, and now sung by first-footers. He should leave by the same door so as not to take the luck out of the back door. Turning the stranger away would bring bad luck for the year.
As with Christmas, many of our modern traditions originated with the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam mixed with some traditions from the local Native Americans. In his book, The Golden Bough, anthropologist Sir James Frazer discussed the Iroquois tradition of having a night of anarchy on New Year’s. He describes it as “Men and women, variously disguised, went from wigwam to wigwam smashing throwing down whatever they came across. It was a time of license; people were supposed to be out of their senses, and therefore not to be responsible for what they did.” They also made a large bonfire, and tossed unused possessions into it. The Dutch settlers saw this and ran with it. The burned bonfires and feasted and drank. By 1753, the celebrations in New York City were so crazy that laws were passed outlawing ringing in the New Year with homemade bombs, fireworks and shotgun blasts. Some party. Now in New York City, the most famous New Year’s party is in Times Square where thousands of people gather to watch the ball drop at midnight. The first time the ball dropped was New Year’s 1907. The ball was made of iron and wood. Today, the ball is made of Waterford Crystal and weighs 1,070 pounds, and is six feet in diameter.
After midnight, it has become traditional to sing Robert Burns’ Auld Lang Syne. It was first published in 1796, but it had been sung for at least eighty years prior. It did not become an American tradition until popularized by band leader Guy Lombardo. He played the traditional piece at a New Year’s party in 1929, and the song stuck. The Guy Lombardo version of the song was played at every New Year’s Eve at the Waldorf Astoria from 1930 to 1976, as well as broadcast on radio then television. Life magazine said, “if Lombardo failed to play ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ the American public would not believe that the new year had really arrived.”
When most people wake up from their party on New Year’s Eve, usually with an aching head, they make their New Year’s resolutions. If they drank too much, it is usually to never ever do that again. This tradition stretches back to the Babylonians as well. The top Babylonian resolutions were to pay back debts and return loaned farming tools. In the Southern United States, a meal of “hoppin’ john” would ensure good luck and prosperity. This is a dish of black eyed peas, rice and ham hocks. An old saying said, “Eat peas on New Year’s day to have plenty of everything the rest of the year.” Eating cabbage or collard greens on New Years Day was believed to insure prosperity. The green leaves represent money. In actuality the Cabbage and collard greens are late crops. That means, especially in the south, they would be plentiful and ready for harvest in early January. The tradition ostensibly dates back to the civil war where the peas were the only thing the Union soldiers refused to eat as they considered them to be “animal feed”, and so left them. The confederates and their families however ate them as a sign of being grateful for a meal. Again, there are similar records of the Pharaohs of Egypt eating peas as a sign of humility in the presence of their Gods.
So make your resolutions, eat your black eyed peas and everyone have a happy, healthy and prosperous year!