As we pass the black-eyed peas and hog jowls around our southern dinner tables on New Year’s Day, it is interesting to consider some of the reasons why we celebrate the new year in the first place. To answer such a question, we have to look back some 2000 years, understand the calendar we use, and know something about pigs.
While the celebration of the new year is perhaps the oldest of all holidays, it has not always been celebrated on January 1. It was first observed in ancient Babylon about 4000 years ago, and took place in mid-March at the Vernal (Spring) Equinox. The Egyptians and Persians celebrated a New Year at the Fall Equinox, and to the Greeks the new year came at the winter solstice. It was largely a celebration of either the end of winter and the coming of summer, or vice versa.
Celebrations of a new year evolved over time to be held after the winter solstice, with a new spring growing season just around the corner. The Romans celebrated the March new year until Julius Caesar established the Julian calendar and firmly established January 1 the first day of the calendar year. It was purely arbitrary with no astronomical or agricultural significance. The beginning of spring is a logical time to start a new year.
The ancient Babylonian’s had quite a new year celebration, as it lasted for eleven days. The revelry that took place in Babylon makes modern parties pale in comparison. Mixed in with pagan symbolism and beliefs, new years celebrations were once condemned by the churches. It has only been for the past 400 years that western nations celebrated January 1 as a holiday. As was Christmas, new holidays were created to combat the pagan celebrations, such as celebrating the new year as the “Feast of Christ’s Communion”. It seems placing a more appropriate name on the day made people feel better about their celebrating. Other cultures built bonfires signifying the destruction of the old, to make way for the new, to bring good luck, or to frighten evil spirits away. Fires, fireworks, and gunfire were once common ways to celebrate the new year, especially in Appalachia.
The tradition of making resolutions or promises goes back to the Babylonians. One of their common resolutions was to return borrowed farm tools. Losing weight and quitting smoking must not have been high on the Babylonian’s list of priorities.
Good luck has always been associated with the new year, or at least with the first activities that one undertook, such as gathering together on that day with family and friends. It was long believed that the first visitor in the house, so long as he was a tall, dark-haired man, would bring good luck. Eating certain foods, such as black-eyed peas, hog meat (pigs were a symbol of prosperity), rice, and cabbage (it looks like money as well as the fact that it is a winter vegetable) were believed to bring a prosperous year. Personally, I favor the old Dutch custom of eating donuts on New Year’s Day as the ring-shaped cake was believed to be lucky.
Then there is the new year’s song, “Auld Lang Syne”. While nobody ever seems to know the words or meaning, the song is sung at midnight on New Year’s Eve in almost every English-speaking country in the world. “Auld Lang Syne” is an old Scotch tune written in the 1700’s, meaning “old long ago”. It bids farewell to the “good old days” and looks forward to happy times in the future.
So this new year, eat a little pig, sing a Scottish tune, and make a Babylonian promise on the first day of a month the Romans named. But try to keep the gunfire to a minimum. Some of us like our New Year’s calm and quiet, with a cup of steaming coffee and a fresh donut.