by John Colgan-Davis
This week marks the end of 2014 and the birth of the new year. Around the world there will be celebrations, ceremonies, religious observances, parties and more as the majority of the world moves from one year into the next.
In fact, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are probably the most celebrated public holidays in the world. And for most of the world, that now means Dec. 31 into Jan. 1. But for most of human history it did not mean those dates, and in some cultures it still doesn’t. The idea of a new year starting in the midst of winter is a relatively new idea.
New Year’s has been celebrated for thousands of years. The first recorded celebrations were from about 4000 years ago in Mesopotamia/Iraq, the place where most historians agree civilization started. Around spring and fall equinoxes, when days and nights were of equal length, they celebrated both the planting and the harvest as days of renewal for the cities and surrounding areas.
Such celebrations undoubtedly happened even before that, long before humans invented writing and kept records. But once farming and agriculture became mainstays of human activity, people simply had to know when the ideal times were to plant and to harvest. Knowing the cycle of the seasons became essential.
In fact, for thousands of years in most cultures spring was viewed as the beginning of new year. The earth was in fact being ‘born again.” Flowers were budding, animals were emerging from hibernation or returning to feeding grounds and mating, days were longer, and it seemed as if the world was truly reborn. The cycle of the seasons was noted and revered.
This can be seen in many religious practices even today. Many of them have some of their most significant holidays (holy days) in the spring and fall. Easter and Passover, among others, are all about renewal and rebirth. So how did we get from the cycle of the seasons determining the new year to an almost universal acceptance of January as the new year? What happened?
In 46 B.C.E. Julius Caesar faced a challenge. Empires control many peoples and many cultures, and they need an empire-wide sense of time for efficiency in trade, law and more. So Julius invited a noted astronomer from Egypt to come to Rome and create a solar calendar to move the Roman Empire’s sense of time from the movable dates of a lunar (moon) based calendar to an unchangeable solar (sun) based one.
This moved the new year from March (spring) back to January. In 42 B.C.E. The Roman Senate decided to honor the by then assassinated leader by making Jan. 1 his day as a tribute to Caesar and to honor his readjustment of the calendar.
This meshed very nicely with Roman religion, which already had a god of gates and beginnings named Janus for whom the month of January is named. Janus was two headed, with one head looking backward and one looking forward.
This was a perfect metaphor for a new year: look back at what happened and look forward to what is to come. So January became the start of a new year. This lasted throughout the Empire, but as the Roman Empire broke up, new year’s again became a melange of dates.
The Catholic Church in its attempt to unify Europe then drew up a new calendar in 1582 under the leadership of Pope Gregory the 13th. This calendar, the Gregorian, is the one in use in most of the world today, and it made the universal new year’s date Jan. 1.
And although there are still cultures and calendars which celebrate the new year at different times, the Jewish, Islamic, Chinese and Baha’i calendars, for example, the business and political world all now operate on the Gregorian calendar and recognize the New Year as Jan. 1.
With that come traditions that reflect how important the idea of a new year is. Janus looks in two directions, and that is a good metaphor for this occasion. We look back at what we did in the previous year, evaluate it and resolve (make resolutions) to do better in the next one.
And we eat foods that represent hopes for long lives, much prosperity, good fortune, good health and more. Circle cakes, noodles, special dumplings, rice and black eyed peas, certain fruits and more are part of traditional New Years’ feasts from various cultures that symbolize hopes for the next year.
And new beginnings call for humans to be reverent and reflective and to look at our lives against a larger backdrop. So family and community matter a lot; we need to be together in some form which recognizes that we meet the world best when we are with others and working together.
Ritual brings us together and allows us to see and celebrate our joint humanity and need of each other. So as we head into a new beginning, I wish you all a time of thoughtfulness, good company, good food, fun and good wishes. Whenever and however you celebrate it, may you have a great and wonderful start of the new year.
John Colgan-Davis is a long-time Mt. Airy resident, a teacher and harmonica player with The Dukes of Destiny.