Monday, January 02, 2012

New Year’s Day: One of the Planet’s Oldest Holidays

As a child I enjoyed a New Year’s Eve tradition involving Duck Soup. Not the kind you eat, I ended my year every year watching the 1933 movie staring the Marx Brothers. Back then WGN television out of Chicago broadcast the movie as a part of its regular New Year’s Eve schedule. I would watch this movie and a number of other old classics, taking a break as the clock approached 11pm. Then I would turn to one of the national networks to watch the ball drop in Times Square. New York being in a different time zone, the ball would mark the start of the New Year an hour before we celebrated in the Chicago area. To be honest after watching the Times Square celebration our local celebration always seemed a bit anticlimactic.

According to Timessquarenyc.org one million people visit Times Square on December 31st. Billions more watch around the world as the descent of a Waterford Crystal ball marks both the end and a new beginning. In just over a century the Times Square celebration has become the evening’s star attraction but the location was not always the place to be on New Year’s Eve. In fact celebrating the start of the New Year started long before Peter Minuite traded $24 worth of beads for Manhattan Island.

Babylonian Akitu Celebrations

Akitu (or Barley) was a Babylonian religious festival celebrated during the vernal equinox in the month of Nisannu (Nisan on the Jewish calendar; March/April on today’s calendar). The date marked the start of the New Year as well as the beginning of the growing season and the sowing of barley. Just over a week long the celebration included a number of rituals mostly geared towards honoring the Babylonian gods. During the festival a sitting king would do a sort of penitence for his sins, or if needed the country would crown a new king. Similar festivals were celebrated by other cultures, usually with heavy religious significance. These celebrations often occurred at the start of spring with a few countries celebrating at the start of fall.

New Year’s on a Solar Calendar

Where most cultures were using calendars based on a lunar year, Rome moved to a solar year sometime around 45BC. Both calendars were designed to track growing seasons. However, lunar calendars did not accurately reflect the realities of a 365 day year. As a result governments would randomly add and remove months in order to bring their lunar calendars back in sync with the earth. In instating what would be known as the Julian calendar Julius Caesar established a calendar that was a close reflection of the growing seasons. He also established January 1st as the first day of the year.

January was named for the Roman god Janus who was the god of beginnings. The celebration of New Year’s on the first was done in honor of this god who was said to have two faces, one looking forward and one looking back. While the Julian calendar gave a new anchor for the timing of the New Year’s celebration, it was also off by eleven minutes per year and by the 1500’s was a full ten days off from the natural growing seasons. As a result the Catholic Church set out to establish a new more accurate calendar.

Pope Gregory XIII ordered the use of a new (Gregorian) calendar. Initially the church would look for other days on which to start the year but would eventually settle for continuing the practice of celebrating January 1st. Perhaps as a way to justify the use of a day that had previously been associated with pagan gods, the church explained this holiday as falling eight days after the Jesus’ birthday. This marked the time when Jesus would have been circumcised according to Jewish Law.

New Year’s Celebration Comes to New York

By linking the New Year’s celebration with the circumcision of Christ, Christians around the world had reason to celebrate. In New York during the 1800’s this celebration took place outside Lower Manhattan’s Trinity Church. Large crowds would gather in anticipation of hearing the church bells ring in the New Year. This tradition would continue until 1904 when Alfred Ochs, owner of the New York Times, chose New Year’s Eve as the day to celebrate the newspaper’s move into its new home on a triangular shaped plot of land where Broadway, Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street meet.

Ochs’ celebration was an all day event, with a festival leading up to fireworks at midnight. Crowds would return on New Year’s Eve the next year to once again see fireworks and the celebration at Times Square was established. However a ban on the use of fireworks during the celebration would eventually force Ochs to come up with something new, leading to the lowering of a large ball, a custom that continues today. The New York Times is no longer headquartered at One Times Square but the annual New Year’s celebration continues.

What is your New Year’s Tradition?

Whether you watched the ball drop or spent the evening watching old movies I wish you a Happy New Year as we celebrate one of our planet’s oldest holidays. May your 2012 be blessed.

For more on the history of New Years see: History.com
For information on “Duck Soup” by the Marxs Bros. see imdb.com.

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