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'S EVE INFORMATION
Year ceremonies are designed to get rid of the past and to welcome
the future. January is named after the Etruscan word janua which
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
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."
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.
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
GIFTS AT NEW YEAR'S
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
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
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 SCOTS
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,
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).
1st AS THE START OF THE NEW YEAR
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.
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".
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.
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
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.
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
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
PEOPLE HAPPY NEW YEAR IN DIFFERENT LANGUAGES!