It was in the ancient times[700 BC] that the Romans first dedicated New Year’s Day to Janus , the mythological God of gates, doors and beginnings. Legend has it that he has two faces, one looking forward and one backward, and the first month of the year, January is named after him. This tradition of celebrating New Year on January 1 then faded away and it was only in 1751 that New Year began on January first, once again.
With the expansion of Western culture and the Gregorian calender being adopted by many countries, the celebration of New Year’s day on January 1 has become pretty universal. This is so even in countries [such as India, China etc.] with their own New Year’s celebrations on other days. For example, the Chinese New Year [also called lunar new year] occurs about 4 to 8 weeks before spring [Lichun] and the exact date is anywhere between 21st January and 21st February. It is the most important Chinese celebration of the year.
In India it is celebrated in various regions, mostly between March and April; Gudi Padwa in Maharashtra, Ugadi in Andhra, Cheti Chand among Sindhis, Varusha Piruppay in Tamil Nadu and Baisakhi in Punjab, etc. For the Jewish it is Rosh Hashanah [Hebrew for Head of the year], when apple slices are dipped in honey and eaten with blessings recited for a sweet new year. The Zoroastrian New Year coincides with the Iranian new year of Nowruz (or Navroze) and is celebrated by Parsis and Persians throughout the world.
New Year celebrations often vary from country to country and reflect ancient traditions within their cultures. In Scotland, the New Year is called Hogmanay. Here one can find barrels of tar set on fire and rolled down streets of villages. This odd but significant ritual symbolizes that the old year is burned up and the New Year is going to begin. In Japan, late in the evening of December 31st, people would eat a bowl of buckwheat noodles called Toshikoshisoba [year-crossing noodles] and listen for Buddhist temple bells to ring 108 times at midnight to purify the 108 sins that plague every human being. Homes are often decorated with pine or bamboo, both considered to be symbols of long life. In Spain people eat 12 grapes at midnight: one for every time the clock chimes twelve. In many parts of the USA, black eyed peas are eaten for good luck in the coming year. The Dutch eat Donuts to bring in good fortune and ancient Persians gave eggs as New Year gifts symbolizing productivity. In other parts of the world the humble cabbage is eaten for prosperity.
In Venezuela, Bolivia, Mexico and Argentina, do not be surprised to see people carrying an empty suitcase around the house or even down the block at midnight on New Year’s eve. They do this to ensure that they travel great distances in the coming year. In China they burn crackers at midnight to scare away the evil spirits and even seal the doors and windows of their houses with paper to keep the demons out.
The tradition of making new year resolutions may seem like a modern one; the promise to lose weight, to go easy on the alcohol etc, but the truth is that this ritual is as ancient as the Babylonians. In those times the most popular resolution during the new year was to return borrowed farm equipment!
Bill Vaughn once wrote that on New Year’s eve, an optimist stays up until midnight to greet the new year, while the pessimist does the same, but only to make sure that the old year has left. And so, whichever way we chose to do it, the time has come to bid goodbye to the fables and foibles of the year gone by, and to welcome the New Year 2013 with open arms, black eyed peas or a suitcase, whatever one fancies. After all it is going to be a Happy New Year.
- Sita Lakshmi Narayan Swamy