The Origin of New Year's Eve Traditions  



When I was little, at our house usually New Year's Eve was watching Guy Lombardo count down from the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Champagne (and sparkling cider for me). Banging pots and pans and yelling Happy New Year out the door to the neighbors. My Mom made black eyed peas and ham (I didn't eat the peas). We burned a bayberry candle all the way to its end.


New Year ceremonies are designed to get rid of the past and to welcome the future. January is named after the Etruscan word janua which means door.

The End of the Year: The Old Year is marked by suspension of normal activities. Abstinence and fasts are done. The life of the community symbolized by the king ends. Kings are deposed or their position temporarily suspended. In ancient Rome February 24th was considered The Flight of the King. Temporary kings for the season are established in Cambodia, Thailand, Nigeria, Uganda, and British Twelfth Night. Parties are held to see the Old Year out.

Banishing the Old Year: There cannot be a New Year until the Old Year is gone. The Old Year is evil and must be banished. An effigy of Death is paraded through the town or city and is buried, drowned, or burned. It can be made of straw, twigs, or rags. In Scotland the dummy is called the Auld Wife, while in other countries it is called the Death.



The most commonly sung song for English-speakers on New Year's eve, "Auld Lang Syne" is an old Scottish song that was first published by the poet Robert Burns in the 1796 edition of the book, Scots Musical Museum. Burns transcribed it (and made some refinements to the lyrics) after he heard it sung by an old man from the Ayrshire area of Scotland, Burns's homeland. 

It is often remarked that "Auld Lang Syne" is one of the most popular songs that nobody knows the lyrics to. "Auld Lang Syne" literally translates as "old long since" and means "times gone by." The song asks whether old friends and times will be forgotten and promises to remember people of the past with fondness, "For auld lang syne, we'll tak a cup o' kindness yet."



The tradition of using a baby to signify the new year was begun in Greece around 600 BC. It was their tradition at that time to celebrate their god of wine, Dionysus, by parading a baby in a basket, representing the annual rebirth of that god as the spirit of fertility. Early Egyptians also used a baby as a symbol of rebirth.

Although the early Christians denounced the practice as pagan, the popularity of the baby as a symbol of rebirth forced the Church to reevaluate its position. The Church finally allowed its members to celebrate the new year with a baby, which was to symbolize the birth of the baby Jesus.

The use of an image of a baby with a New Years banner as a symbolic representation of the new year was brought to early America by the Germans. They had used the effigy since the fourteenth century.



BLACK EYED PEAS: Many parts of the U.S. celebrate the new year by consuming black-eyed peas. These legumes are typically accompanied by either hog jowls or ham. Black-eyed peas and other legumes have been considered good luck in many cultures. The hog, and thus its meat, is considered lucky because it symbolizes prosperity. Cabbage is another "good luck" vegetable that is consumed on New Year's Day by many. Cabbage leaves are also considered a sign of prosperity, being representative of paper currency. In some regions, rice is a lucky food that is eaten on New Year's Day.



THE DUTCH: It was the Dutch, in their New Amsterdam settlement at mid-17th century, who originated the modern American New Year celebration. The New Year's Day was the most important holiday for the Dutch who were noted in all the colonies for their love of beer and wine. 



The New Year gift-giving tradition has a pre-historic root. Despite the 'Christmas presents' culture, 'gift giving' at New Year is still practiced in many parts of Europe, including France, Switzerland, Russia and Greece. In Europe it was prevalent even before Christ was born.
Today here in USA we are more used to gift-giving at Christmas, rather than the New Year's Day. Historically this owes its origin to the old customs of the German and Dutch settlers. The English and French dominated states though continued with the tradition of gift-giving on the New Year's Day for a long while. However, the combined German and Dutch influences, in time, caused this old tradition to be wiped out giving way to the present custom across America.

From the Celts to the Romans
The Celtic-Teutonic Druids used to make a gift of their holy plant mistletoe at the beginning of the Year. Among the Romans such gifts were called 'strenae', a word said to be derived from the goddess of luck, Strenia. At first the gifts were branches from sacred trees meant for wishing recipients an auspicious New Year. Later objects like gilded nuts and coins bearing the imprint of Janus, the god with two faces to whom January was sacred.
Rome had also developed a custom of presenting gifts to the emperor. But later the spirit ceased to exist and a 'forced payment' replaced the 'gifts'. Courtesy, the power wielding Roman despots. It went on for some couple of centuries until the practice was forbidden by Pope Leo I the Great in 458.

The English and the Scots
English royalty, also began to force their subjects in the matter of New Year's gifts as early as the time of Henry III (1216-72). Queen Elizabeth was very watchful of the "who's and what's" of the giving and received great amounts in jewels and gold on New Year's Day. She systematized the practice to the extent of keeping descriptive lists of the gifts presented to her from all walks of life. However, following the splendor of Queen Elizabeth's reign, the practice declined. Finally, when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans came into power, the custom stopped.
The New Year gift exchange was also a common practice among the ordinary English people until the Victorian regime. Gloves were a usual gift. Also popular were oranges stuck with clove, used to preserve and flavor wine. When the English had settled in America they brought in the tradition and continued to exchange gifts and presents at the New Years. So did the French. Thus we find, the predominantly French, New Orleans continued with the New Year's practice for a long time. And in France even today gifts and greeting cards are presented on New Year's Day.
In Scotland, where New Year's is the biggest feast of the year, gifts were solicited by bands of boys who went from door to door begging for money and food



The Origins of Hogmanay
A guid New Year to ane an` a` and mony may ye see!
While New Year's Eve is celebrated around the world, the Scots have a long rich heritage associated with this event - and have their own name for it, Hogmanay.
There are many theories about the derivation of the word "Hogmanay". The Scandinavian word for the feast preceding Yule was "Hoggo-nott" while the Flemish words (many have come into Scots) "hoog min dag" means "great love day". Hogmanay could also be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon, Haleg monath, Holy Month, or the Gaelic, oge maidne, new morning. But the most likely source seems to be the French. "Homme est né" or "Man is born" while in France the last day of the year when gifts were exchanged was "aguillaneuf" while in Normandy presents given at that time were "hoguignetes". Take your pick!
In Scotland a similar practice to that in Normandy was recorded, rather disapprovingly, by the Church. "It is ordinary among some Plebians in the South of Scotland, to go about from door to door upon New Year`s Eve, crying Hagmane." Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence, 1693.

Historians believe that we inherited the celebration from the Vikings who, coming from even further north than ourselves, paid even more attention to the passing of the shortest day. In Shetland, where the Viking influence was strongest, New Year is called Yules, from the Scandinavian word.
It may not be widely known but Christmas was not celebrated as a festival and virtually banned in Scotland for around 400 years, from the end of the 17th century to the 1950s. The reason for this has its roots in the Protestant Reformation when the Kirk portrayed Christmas as a Popish or Catholic feast and therefore had to be banned. Many Scots had to work over Christmas and their winter solstice holiday was therefore at New Year when family and friends gathered for a party and exchange presents, especially for the children, which came to be called hogmanays.
There are traditions before midnight such as cleaning the house on 31st December (including taking out the ashes from the fire in the days when coal fires were common). There is also the superstition to clear all your debts before "the bells" at midnight.
"First footing" (that is, the "first foot" in the house after midnight) is still common in Scotland. To ensure good luck for the house, the first foot should be male, dark (believed to be a throwback to the Viking days when blond strangers arriving on your doorstep meant trouble) and should bring symbolic coal, shortbread, salt, black bun and whisky. These days, however, whisky and perhaps shortbread are the only items still prevalent (and available).



The celebration of the new year is the oldest of all holidays. It was first observed in ancient Babylon about 4000 years ago. In the years around 2000 BC, the Babylonian New Year began with the first New Moon (actually the first visible crescent) after the Vernal Equinox (first day of spring). This coincided with approximately 23rd-25th March on the Julian Calendar.
The beginning of spring is a logical time to start a new year. After all, it is the season of rebirth, of planting new crops, and of blossoming. It symbolized new growth and a time to look forward to the future - the same meaning that the new year holds for people today. January 1, on the other hand, has no astronomical nor agricultural significance. It is purely arbitrary.

The Babylonian new year celebration lasted for eleven days. Each day had its own particular mode of celebration, but it is safe to say that modern New Year's Eve festivities pale in comparison. The Romans continued to observe the new year in late March, but their calendar was continually tampered with by various emperors so that the calendar soon became out of synchronization with the sun.
In order to set the calendar right, the Roman senate, in 153 BC, declared January 1 to be the beginning of the new year. The acceptance of the changed date was delayed. This might be due to some of its arbitrary nature that we have already pointed out. The date was unusual. For, unlike the customs prevalent till then, no agricultural or seasonal significance was attached to it. Instead, it was just a civil date, the day after the elections when the consuls would assume their new positions in the Roman empire.

But the bigger problem the changed date posed, was difficulties in the calculation of the year. As the Romans moved their New Year's Day backward almost three months to January 1, we have irregularities in our calendar. The months of September, October, November and December, originally mean, the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth month respectively. Later, many of the Roman emperors had given new names to these months. September received names as "Germanucus", "Antonius" and "Tacitus" under each of these emperors' regime. Thus November also earned the varying names of "Domitianus", "Faustinus" and "Romanus".

The inconveniences led Julius Caesar to institute a new calendar. It was devised by the Greek astronomer Sosigenes of Alexandria from the unrivaled Egyptian solar calendar. Caesar wanted to change the date of the New Year from January 1 to a more logical date - to one of the solstices or equinoxes. However, it happened that January 1 of 45 B.C. was the date of a new moon and to change it would have been to invite bad luck according to the prevalent beliefs. Infact in order to synchronize the calendar with the sun, Caesar had to let the previous year drag on for 445 days.

For his calendar reform, the Senate rewarded him by having the month of his birth, Quintilis, renamed "July" in his honor. Caesar's grandnephew, the Emperor Augustus, had a similar honor bestowed on him when he corrected a mistake which had crept into the calculation of the leap year. Till then it had been observed every three years, instead of every four. He abolished all leap years between 8 B.C. and A.D. 8. Thus he set the calendar straight and earned for himself the renaming of Sextilis as "August".
In early times, the ancient Romans gave each other New Year's gifts of branches from sacred trees. In later years, they gave gold-covered nuts or coins imprinted with pictures of Janus, the god of gates, doors, and beginnings. January was named after Janus, who had two faces--one looking forward and the other looking backward. The Romans also brought gifts to the emperor. The emperors eventually began to demand such gifts. But the Christian church outlawed this custom and certain other pagan New Year's practices in A.D. 567.

As the Catholic Church expanded, it was strongly opposed to the celebration of the Roman's New Year, and denounced it as paganism. However, as Christianity became more widespread, the religious observances of the Catholic Church began to coincide with many of the pagan celebrations. On January 1, while the Romans celebrated the New Year, the Catholic Church worshipped what is still observed by some denominations today as the Feast of Christ's Circumcision. The Church continued to condemn the celebration of the New Year throughout the Middle Ages. It wasn't until the late 1500s that January 1 became the official holiday celebrated by Western nations.

It was Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 AD who incorporated our present method of calculation and dividing the year. It was the Pope who reinstituted the practice of observing New Year's Day on January 1, regardless of the pre-Christian associations with that date. The Gregorian reforms also canceled ten days from October; Thursday, October 4, 1582, was followed by Friday, October 15, 1582. the old discrepancy was provided for by making only those century dates leap years that were that were divisible by 400. Thus although the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not leap years, the 2000 is.

The global adoption:
Catholic countries adopted it soon. Yet it took some time for the Protestants to follow suit. Finally Germany did adopt it in 1700, Great Britain in 1752, and Sweden in 1753. It was then necessary to drop 11 days from the calendar because 1700 had been a leap year.



NOISEMAKERS AT MIDNIGHT: The idea of making deafening noise is to drive away the evil spirits who flocked to the living at this climactic season with a great wailing of horns and shouts and beating of drums. This is why at the stroke of midnight we hear the deafening cacophony of sirens, car horns, boat whistles, party horns, church bells, drums, pots and pans - anything that serves the purpose of producing a devil chasing din. 



RESOLUTIONS: In order to have a 'clean slate' on which to start the New Year, people in times past have made certain that they had all their borrowings cleared. Those were the days before such complexities as credit buying. The New Year resolutions, which we are so fond of, represent other efforts to make the year brand new. In fact, we often say that in the New Year we are "turning over a new leaf."