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The History of New Year’s Resolutions
THE TRADITION of New Year’s resolutions goes all the way back to 153 BC. Janus, the mythical king of early Rome, was put at the head of the calendar.
With two faces, Janus could look back on past events and forward into the future. Janus became an ancient symbol for decisions and many Romans sought forgiveness from their enemies and also exchanged gifts before the start of each year.
The new year didn’t always start on January 1, and it doesn’t start on that date everywhere today either. It starts on that date only for cultures that use a 365-day solar calendar. January 1 became the start of the New Year in 46 BC, when Julius Caesar developed a calendar that would reflect the seasons more accurately than previous calendars had.
The Romans named the first month of the year after Janus, the god of beginnings and guardian of doors and entrances. He was always depicted with two faces, one on the front of his head and one on his back. So he could look backwards and forwards at the same time. At midnight on December 31, the Romans imagined Janus looking back on the old year and advancing into the new.
The Romans started the tradition of exchanging gifts on New Year’s Eve by giving each other branches of sacred trees for good luck. Later, nuts or coins imprinted with the god Janus became more common New Year’s gifts.
In the Middle Ages, Christians changed the New Year to December 25, the birth of Jesus. Then they changed it to March 25, a feast called the Annunciation. In the sixteenth century, Pope Gregory XIII revised the Julian calendar, and the celebration of the New Year was returned to January 1.
The Julian and Gregorian calendars are solar calendars. However, some cultures have lunar calendars. A year in the lunar calendar is less than 365 days because the months are based on the phases of the moon. The Chinese use a lunar calendar. Their new year begins at the time of the first full moon (over the Far East) after the sun enters Aquarius – sometime between January 19th and February 21st.
Although the New Year’s date is not the same in all cultures, it is always a time for celebration and customs that ensure good luck in the coming year.
Old New Years
The celebration of the New Year is the oldest of all holidays. It was first noticed in ancient Babylon about 4000 years ago. Around 2000 BC, the Babylonians celebrated the beginning of the new year on March 23, even though they had no written calendar themselves.
The end of March is actually a logical choice for the beginning of the new year. It is the time of year when spring begins and new crops are planted. The first of January, on the other hand, has neither astronomical nor agricultural significance. It is purely arbitrary.
The celebration of the Babylonian New Year lasted eleven days. Each day had its own special way of celebration, but it can be said that modern New Year celebrations pale in comparison.
The Romans continued to celebrate the New Year on March 25, but their calendar was constantly changed by various emperors, so that the calendar soon became out of sync with the sun.
In order to correct the calendar, the Roman Senate declared January 1 as the beginning of the New Year in 153 BC. But the tinkering continued until Julius Caesar, in 46 BC, established what became known as the Julian calendar. January 1 was re-established as the New Year. But to align the calendar with the sun, Caesar had to let the previous year drag on 445 days.
Global traditions of good luck
With the New Year upon us, here’s a look at some of the good luck rituals from around the world. They are believed to bring luck and prosperity in the coming year.
AUSTRIA – The udder is a symbol of happiness in the new year. It is served on a table decorated with tiny edible pigs. Dessert often consists of spearmint ice cream in the shape of a four-leaf clover.
ENGLAND – The British are placing their wealth for the coming year in the hands of their first guest. They believe that the first visitor every year should be a man and bring gifts. Traditional gifts are coal for the fire, bread for the table and drink for the master. For good luck, the guest should enter through the front door and exit through the back. Empty-handed or unwanted guests are not allowed to enter first.
WALES – At the first stroke of midnight, the back door opens and then closes to release the old year and lock away all its bad luck. Then, at the twelfth stroke of the clock, the front door opens and the New Year is welcomed with all the happiness.
HAITI – In Haiti, the New Year is a sign of the year to come. Haitians wear new clothes and exchange gifts in the hope that it will be good for the new year.
SICILY – An old Sicilian tradition says that luck will come to those who eat lasagna on New Year’s Day, but woe betide you if you eat macaroni, because every other noodle brings bad luck.
SPAIN – In Spain, when the clock strikes midnight, the Spanish eat 12 grapes, one for each toll, to bring good luck for the next 12 months.
PERU – The Peruvian New Year custom is a continuation of the Spanish tradition of eating 12 grapes at the turn of the year. But in Peru one must eat the 13th grape to ensure good luck.
GREECE – A special New Year’s bread is baked with a coin buried in the dough. The first piece is for the Christ child, the second is for the father of the household, and the third is for the house. If the third slice holds the coin, spring will come early that year.
JAPAN – The Japanese decorate their homes in honor of the lucky gods. One tradition, kadomatsu, consists of a pine branch that symbolizes longevity, a bamboo stem that symbolizes prosperity, and a plum blossom that shows nobility.
CHINA – For Chinese New Year, every front door is decorated with a fresh coat of red, red being a symbol of good luck and fortune. Although the whole family prepares a New Year’s feast, all knives are put away for 24 hours so that no one cuts themselves, which is believed to reduce the family’s luck for the coming year.
UNITED STATES – The midnight kiss in the United States comes from masked balls that have been common throughout history. As tradition says, the masks symbolize the evil spirits from the old year, and the kiss is the purification into the new year.
NORWAY – For the New Year, Norwegians make rice pudding and hide one whole almond in it. Guaranteed wealth goes to the person whose portion holds the lucky almond.
chinese new year
Except for a very few people who can keep track of when Chinese New Year should be, most Chinese today have to rely on the typical Chinese calendar to tell. Therefore, you cannot talk about Chinese New Year without first mentioning the Chinese calendar.
The Chinese calendar consists of the Gregorian and lunisolar systems, the latter dividing the year into twelve months, each of which in turn is equally divided into thirty-nine and a half days. A well-coordinated dual-system calendar reflects Chinese ingenuity.
There is also a system that marks the years in a twelve-year cycle, naming each one after an animal such as Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Serpent, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Boar. People born in a certain year are believed to share some of the personality of that particular animal.
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