Editor’s note: This column was first published Dec. 31, 2010
Americans celebrate all types of holidays and observances during our calendar year, from turkey and dressing on Thanksgiving Day, to fireworks on the Fourth of July, picnics on Labor Day to trading cards and candy on Saint Valentine’s Day.
And, in case you missed it, we are fresh from the grandest celebration on the continent last Wednesday during our Christmas observances.
New Year’s Day is just a little bit different than anything else we celebrate. Today’s observance of the first day of the Gregorian calendar year has been around for at least 4,000 years, and is not strictly an American holiday.
With the exception of perhaps a few odd tribesmen in New Guinea we don’t know about, everyone on the planet celebrates or observes the end of the old year, and the beginning of the new.
The earliest recorded observance of the arrival of the new year dates back to 2,000 years before the common era and the ancient Babylonian Empire in Persia.
For us, Babylon was a Mesopotamian city-state in antiquity located south of Baghdad in present-day Iraq. Founded in the Fertile Crescent region of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Babylonians looked on the start of a new year as the first new moon following the vernal equinox — the day in late March with an equal amount of sunlight and darkness.
They marked the new year’s occasion with a massive religious festival called Akitu, involving a different ritual on each of the observance’s 11 days.
They also celebrated the mythical victory of the Babylonian sky god Marduk over the evil sea goddess Tiamat.
During this time, a new king was crowned or the then-current ruler symbolically was renewed.
Cool, huh? Old-style politics mixed with religion.
The early Roman calendar consisted of 10 months and 304 days, with each new year beginning at the vernal equinox — according to tradition — created by Romulus, the founder of Rome in the eighth century B.C.
A later ruler is credited with adding the months of Januarius and Februarius.
Over the centuries, the Roman calendar fell out of sync with the sun, and in 46 B.C. Julius Caesar opted to solve this little problem by consulting with the most prominent mathematicians of his time, introducing the Julian calendar, which closely resembles the Gregorian used by most countries in the world today.
As part of that reform, Caesar instituted Jan. 1 as the first day of the year, partly to honor Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, whose two faces, according to History.com, allowed him to look back into the past and forward into the future. Romans celebrated by offering sacrifices to Janus, exchanging gifts, decorating homes with laurel branches and attending raucous parties. Sound familiar?
In medieval Europe, Christian leaders replaced Jan. 1 as the first day of the year with days carrying more religious significance, including Dec. 25 as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ, and March 25 as the Feast of the Annunciation, when the archangel Gabriel visited Mary and told her she was to mother Jesus the Christ.
Pope Gregory XIII re-established Jan. 1 as New Year’s Day in 1582.
Traditions mark many New Year’s Day observances, which most times begin the evening of Dec. 31, or New Year’s Eve, and continue into the wee hours of Jan. 1. Revelers sometimes eat specific foods they believe bring them good luck for the coming year.
In Spain grapes are eaten, Filipinos eat round fruits, Austrians devour suckling pig, the Japanese eat soba noodles, Norwegians feast on rice pudding while black-eyed peas are the dish of favor in the Southern United States.
My dad and grandma Christy always ate black-eyed peas on Jan. 1 out of this tradition.
As a youngster I didn’t appreciate the custom much, as I hated the little black-eyed pea monsters they placed before me.
Still don’t like them to this day, but I certainly now appreciate the tradition.
So, as with virtually all of our traditions save the Fourth of July and Labor Day, New Year’s has something of a religious or pagan background to it.
But, the holiday has a host of divergent backgrounds and oddities. The ancient Egyptians pinned the first day of the year to the annual flooding of the Nile, which coincided with the rising of the star Sirius.
The Chinese new year occurs with the second new moon after the winter solstice. To each his own is my feeling.
But, couldn’t my deeply Southern relatives have come up with something like fresh-baked peach pie or doughnut holes as their dish of fare for Jan. 1?
Black-eyed peas .... bleah! Marduk can feed mine to Tiamat.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking.