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The Evolution Of New Year's Traditions

Jan 9, 2008
First celebrated by the Babylonians over 4000 years ago, New Year's has become a celebration that is commemorated the world around. The Babylonians began New Year's celebrations on the first New Moon, which appeared sometime in the spring. The Babylonians celebrated the coming of the New Year for eleven days, with each day being dedicated to a new festival.

The Romans picked up on this Babylonian tradition, but added their own symbols to the New Years festivities. The Romans associated the New Year with the mythical Roman king, Janus, whose name was used for the first month of the year. Janus was a two faced man who looked back on the past year while at the same time looked ahead to the coming year.

Due to his ability to see both past and future, Janus became a symbol for forgiveness of past faults and resolutions for future action. Due to this feeling of resolving ones ways, many Romans exchanged gifts of peace on New Year's Eve. At first these gifts were branches from sacred trees, but later coins imprinted with the face of Janus were given to bring good luck.

In the middle Ages, New Year's was changed to December 25th by Christians in order to coincide the beginning of the New Year with Jesus' birth. However, this date change did not last for long and soon New Year's was changed again to March 25th and re-named to Feast of the Annunciation.

Having New Year's in March was in fact a logical choice as it marked the beginning of spring and a new time of abundance. But, this date would not last either. In the 16th century Pope Gregory XIII arbitrarily put New Year's on January 1st, where it remains today.

Although its date has changed in the past, many New Year's traditions have not changed. The early Babylonian and Roman tradition of making resolutions for the coming year has stayed through time. However, the resolutions made have not stayed the same-the most popular Babylonian resolution was to return borrowed farm equipment.

Dating back to 1886, the Tournament of the Roses Parade precedes the Rose Bowl football game held on New Year's Day. This parade was started when members of the Valley Hunt Club decided to decorate their carriages with flowers to celebrate the ripening of the orange crop in California. The Rose Bowl football game did not arrive until 1902, but was replaced the following year by Roman chariot races. However, in 1916 the football game returned to become the center of the Tournament of the Roses/Rose Bowl festivities.

Yet another traditional symbol of the New Year is the image of a baby. Many American newspapers traditionally record the name of the first baby born on the New Year on their New Year's Day papers. This idea of babies signifying the New Year began in Greece around 600 BC.

The Greeks would celebrate the god of wine, Dionysus, by walking a baby around in a basket to show the annual rebirth of the god, who was also the spirit of fertility. Ancient Egyptians and early Christians also used babies as a symbol of rebirth. However, it was the Germans who brought the symbol of a baby with a New Year's banner to the United Sates.

Traditionally sung at the stroke of midnight on December 31st, "Auld Lang Syne" was written by Robert Burns in the 1700s. However, Burns did not make up the song, but instead put together a modern rendition of variations of the song that had been sung in earlier days in his home country of Scotland. First published in 1796 after Burns' death, the title literally means "old long ago," but is commonly translated to "the good old days."

In America, one of the most well known New Year's traditions is the dropping of the ball in Times Square. This tradition began in 1907 with the ball originally made of iron and wood. However, now the six foot wide ball is made of Waterford Crystal, weighing 1,070 pounds.

Throughout the world, New Year's traditions are also tied in with bringing luck for the New Year. For example, the Dutch see eating donuts on New Year's Day as bringing good luck due to the circular shape of the food showing coming full circle in the year. Such traditions are preformed on New Year's Day due to the thinking that the way in which one starts out the year will predict the year's outcome.
About the Author
Charlotte Buelow is a contributing writer for Access My Library. Best known for its authoritative reference content as well as its full-text magazine and newspaper articles, AML maintains over 600 databases that are published online, in print, as eBooks and in microform. Visit
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