While most of the modern world could likely not conceive of the possibility of not celebrating New Year’s Day on January 1st, the reality is that celebrating the New Year in January is a relatively recent idea.
The first New Year’s celebrations were held about 4000 years ago, when the Babylonians celebrated the first new moon that appeared after the Vernal Equinox. This fell around what is now known as late March, which made logical sense to the Babylonians – it was a time when spring was just beginning and the crops could be planted, giving it an agricultural significance. The Babylonians also had a longer holiday than the modern celebrant – the New Year’s festival lasted for 11 days.
In ancient Rome, New Year’s was celebrated on March 25 – the only problem was, each emperor kept tampering with the Roman calendar and causing the sun’s synchronization with the date to shift. To get everything back in order, in 153 BC the Roman Senate declared that January 1st be known as the start of the New Year… but it didn’t last for long. More emperors meant more tampering, until Julius Caesar set the record straight at January 1st again, but in order to get the dates back in sync with the sun, Caesar allowed the year 46 BC to drag on for 445 days.
This was all well and good, until the Catholic Church decided that New Year’s festivities were pagan and evil. In order to provide an acceptable alternative – instead of trying to shut down the popular celebrations – the Church started to have its own celebrations on January 1st. This was often referred to as the celebration of the ‘Feast of the Circumcision of Christ’, which corresponded to December 25th as the Christ child’s birth date. Jewish tradition dictates that newborn males are circumcised on the 8th day after their birth, which in this case falls on January 1st.
Similarly to today’s festivities, in 600 BC the ancient Greeks began using a baby to symbolize the New Year. The Greeks used the start of the new agricultural year to honor Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility, and parading a baby around was intended to symbolize the god’s rebirth. Although the early Church would see this practice as pagan, the popularity of the symbol resulted in the church conceding to using a baby in their own festivities – and explaining it as symbolic of the birth of baby Jesus.
With the arrival of the Middle Ages, the Church still abhorred New Year’s celebrations, and in some areas, the festivities were banned outright. It wasn’t until around 400 years ago that Western countries actually started celebrating January 1st as a holiday again.
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Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard