Intriguing facts about New Year’s origin :Turn of the year, a time for destinies | Sunday Observer

Intriguing facts about New Year’s origin :Turn of the year, a time for destinies

If somebody asks whether you know why New Year’s Day is observed on January 1, what would you say? There are seven chances out of ten, that you would say: “Roman emperor, Julius Caesar first established January 1 as New Year’s Day, and the month was named after god Janus.”

You are correct, but the story of its historic origin is more complicated with lots of twists and turns and bizarre facts.

In the western world, the modern New Year’s festivities begin on December 31 (New Year’s Eve), the last day of the Gregorian calendar, and continue into the early hours of January 1 (New Year’s Day). Common traditions include, attending parties, eating special New Year’s foods, making resolutions for the New Year and watching firework displays.

Earliest records

The earliest recorded New Year’s festivity dates back some 4,000 years, to ancient Babylon, and was deeply intertwined with religion and mythology. For the Babylonians of ancient Mesopotamia, the first new moon following the vernal equinox – (the day in late March with an equal amount of sunlight and darkness) - heralded the start of a New Year and represented the rebirth of the natural world.

They marked the occasion with a grand religious festival, called, Akitu involving a different ritual on each of its 11 days’ celebrations. During Akitu, statues of the gods and goddesses were paraded through the city streets, and rites enacted to symbolize their victory over the forces of chaos. Through these rituals the Babylonians believed the world was symbolically cleansed and recreated by the gods in preparation for the New Year, and the return of spring.


In addition to the New Year, Akitu served an important political purpose: it was during this time that a new king was crowned or the current ruler’s divine mandate renewed.

One fascinating aspect of Akitu involved a kind of ritual humiliation endured by the Babylonian king. This peculiar tradition saw the king brought before a statue of the god Marduk, (patron deity of Babylon) stripped of his royal regalia, mildly slapped and dragged by his ears in the hope of making him cry. If royal tears were shed, it was seen as a sign that Marduk was satisfied and had symbolically extended the king’s rule.

Different New Years

Throughout these early Middle Ages, (500 – 1,000 AD) civilizations around the world developed increasingly sophisticated calendars, typically pinning the first day of the year to an agricultural or astronomical event. In Egypt, for instance, the year began with the annual flooding of the Nile, which coincided with the rising of the star Sirius. The first day of the Chinese New Year, meanwhile, occurred with the second new moon after the winter solstice. The Saka Calendar or the Sakh era is the Indian National calendar. In South India it is celebrated on 13th or 14th April. Sri Lanka followed the Indian tradition.

Roman calendar

The early Roman calendar consisted of 10 months and 304 days, with each New Year beginning at the vernal equinox (March 21). The 10 months were named Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December. The Romans seem to have ignored the remaining 61 days, which fell in the middle of winter.

According to historical sources, it was created by Romulus, the founder of Rome, in the eighth century B.C. A later king, Numa Pompilius, is credited with adding the months of Januarius and Februarius.

Over the centuries, the calendar fell out of sync with the sun, and in 46 B.C. emperor Julius Caesar decided to solve the problem by consulting prominent astronomers and mathematicians of his time. He introduced the Julian calendar, which closely resembles the more modern Gregorian calendar that most countries around the world use today.

As part of his reform, Caesar instituted January 1 as the first day of the year, partly to honour the month’s namesake: Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, whose two faces allowed him to look back into the past and forward into the future. Caesar would have felt that the month named after god Janus would be the appropriate ‘door’ to the year.

In later years, Roman pagans observed the New Year by engaging in drunken orgies - a ritual they believed constituted a personal re-enacting of the chaotic world that existed before the cosmos was ordered by the gods. Romans celebrated by offering sacrifices to Janus, exchanging gifts with one another, decorating their homes with laurel branches and attending raucous parties.

William the Conqueror

As Christianity spread through Europe, these pagan holidays were either incorporated into the Christian calendar or abandoned altogether. By the early Middle Ages, most of Christian Europe regarded Annunciation Day (March 25) as the beginning of the year. (According to Catholic tradition, Annunciation Day commemorates angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would conceive a son to be called Jesus.)

After William the Conqueror (‘William of Normandy’) became King of England on December 25, 1066, he decreed that the English return to the date established by Julius Caesar, January 1. This move ensured that the commemoration of Jesus’ birthday (December 25) would align with William’s coronation, and the commemoration of Jesus’ circumcision (January 1), would start the New Year - thus rooting the English and Christian calendars and his own Coronation.

Pope Gregory XIII

About 500 years later, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII abandoned the traditional Julian calendar. By the Julian reckoning, the solar year comprised 365.25 days, and the intercollation of a ‘leap day’ every four years was intended to maintain correspondence between the calendar and the seasons. However, there was a slight inaccuracy in the Julian measurement (the solar year is actually 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds = 365.2422 days). This inaccuracy caused the Julian calendar to slip behind the seasons about one day per century.

Although this regression had amounted to 14 days by Pope Gregory’s time, he based his reform on the restoration of the vernal equinox, then falling on March 11. Pope Gregory made the correction by advancing the calendar 10 days. The change was made the day after October 4, 1582, and that following day was established as October 15, 1582.

The Gregorian calendar differs from the Julian in three ways: (1) No century year is a leap year unless it is exactly divisible by 400 (e.g., 1600, 2000, etc.); (2) Years divisible by 4,000 are common (not leap) years; and (3) once again the New Year would begin with the date set by the early pagans, the first day of the month of Janus - January 1.


Although most Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar almost immediately, it was only gradually adopted among Protestant countries. The British, for example, did not adopt the reformed calendar until 1752. Until then, the British Empire, and their American colonies, still celebrated the New Year in March.

Even today, superstitious rituals play a part in New Year’s festivities. For example, in some areas of South America, many welcome the New Year while standing on their right foot. Others sound horns and set off firecrackers. According to a Czech custom, New Year’s Eve is a time for eating lentil soup, while a Slovak tradition has people placing money or fish scales under the tablecloth. In the Philippines, wearing polka dots and eating round fruits is supposed to ensure a prosperous new year; in Spain, wolfing down handfuls of grapes as the clock strikes 12 is said to have the same effect.

Such rituals, designed to ward off ill fortune and guarantee prosperity, merely perpetuate the ancient belief that the turn of the year is a time for deciding destinies.