While many modern-day celebrations involve copious amounts of alcohol and the setting of unrealistic resolutions, ancient celebrations usually revolved around a seasonal event, lasted for several days, and may or may not have involved an actual sacrifice.
Contemporarily speaking, there is always a party to attend, you share your resolution with your friends and the next day you get up and go to work hung over. Work on said resolution may or may not start on January 1 if it begins at all. According to some statistics, 88% of people who make resolutions will fail to keep them. Resolutions usually revolve around self-improvement. “I’m going to:
♦ lose weight
♦ eat better
♦ stop smoking
♦ stop drinking
♦ get out of debt
♦ find a better job
♦ get more organized
You get the picture.
But what did the ancients do? And why? A little bit of research revealed quite a bit of insight.
The Babylonians of Mesopotamia
Perhaps the oldest New Year celebration was the Babylonian festival called Akitu. Held as early as 2000 B.C., it was actually a conglomeration of celebrations which included honoring gods and the sowing of barley. Akitu was held after the first new moon after the vernal equinox in modern-day March which was their “res sattim” or “beginning of the year.” It lasted over a week. During that time, the two highest gods were honored by the king and high priest and the governing body announced policy for the next year. The statues of the gods defeated enemies and toured the royal city. Sacrifices were made by the king. The people sang songs, and promised the gods they would return things they had borrowed and that they would pay their debts. This was done in hopes of receiving good favor in the New Year.
The Egyptian New Year coincided with the annual flooding of the Nile River which usually happened in modern-day July. The flooding ensured the fertility of the farmland and was thought of as a time of renewal. “Wepet Renpet” or “opening of the year” was celebrated with weeks of singing, dancing, feasting, and religious ceremonies honoring their gods. This first of the year celebration also included a festival of drunkenness.
The Chinese New Year began over 3000 years ago as a celebration of the spring planting season, became entwined with myths and legends, and is still celebrated today. Based on the lunar calendar, it falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice—late January or early February. With their invention of gunpowder, they became the first to celebrate with fireworks. The festival usually lasts about two weeks with the celebration focused on household and family. Homes are cleaned to remove any bad luck and debts are repaid. Ancestors and gods are honored. Doors are decorated and relatives gather to feast.
The ancient Roman observance of the New Year or “Calends” initially occurred in March. It was a three-day festival during which societal status was suspended as slaves dined with masters. Around 150 B.C., after years of emperors’ constant fiddling with the calendar to get it synchronized with the sun, the Roman Senate declared the first day of the New Year would be January 1. The people made offerings and promises to the god Janus in hopes of good fortune for the New Year. Bad deeds of the previous 12 months were wiped out and strategies for good conduct for the next 12 months were instituted. Differences were reconciled; people decorated their homes, and gave each other “good luck” gifts such as figs or honey. They also worked for at least a part of the day believing inactivity to be a dreadful harbinger for the New Year.
Knowing this bit of history makes it easy to see where some of our contemporary New Year’s traditions and/or resolutions come from.
Happy New Year!