History of New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Eve is December 31 of every year. It is celebrated in countries that use the Gregorian calendar with the United States, Australia, British Isles, North & South America, Europe, Scandinavia and (the former) Soviet Union as the main regions in the world who welcome in a new year.
It is exactly at the stroke of midnight on December 31 of the current year that marks the transition to the New Year ahead. Celebrations may be wild parties or solemn times of prayer. Some participants will dress up in silly outfits and wear comical hats, drink champagne (or other liquors of their choice) and use traditional items called “noisemakers” to express their joy and hope for the new year ahead. Unfortunately, with some people this celebratory behavior gets taken a bit too far. Some people have been known to make improper advances to co-workers at parties, throw their arms around total strangers on the streets or in crowds and well perhaps to other things that would be considered totally unacceptable any other day of the year.
And yet, there are others who attend midnight masses at their church or synagogue; or, get together in large crowds such as New York City’s Time Square to watch the “ball drop.” In London crowds gather in Trafalgar Square to count down the closing of the old year and welcome in the new. In Atlanta, Georgia (USA) a giant Peach is dropped. This began as a competition with New York’s Apple. However, today New York now drops a laser and hand-cut crystal ball.
Some historians feel that our New Year’s Eve celebrations can be traced back to an ancient Roman observance around the time of the Winter Solstice in December called “Saturnalia.” This pagan holiday was known for totally letting go all discipline and rules for behavior and was known to get out of hand (just like some New Year’s Eve celebrations today).
In the 18th century, New Year’s Eve revelry in cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore often ended with street demonstrations, violence, and vandalism. Groups of men and boys were known to toot tin horns, shout, scream, yell, set off firecrackers, knock down barricades such as fences and gates, break windows and (in a few cases) burglarize the homes of some wealthy citizens in the area.
To help curb the problem of over-zealous celebrators on December 31, and to protect those who want to bring in the New Year quietly, many cities in the United States started a popular trend called “The First Night” celebrations. The first “First Night” was held in Boston in 1976 to replace the boisterous partying with cultural events, performances, and non-alcoholic beverages with food in an outdoor setting.
For those who prefer to have a very quiet New Year, many stay home and watch the “dropping ball” or fireworks offered on television stations both locally and/or nationally or worldwide simultaneously.
Auld Lang Syne is our midi. The custom of singing this song on New Years Eve goes back to the British Isles from the 18th century when guests ended a party standing in a circle and singing this song. The custom first was rooted in Scotland, because the lyrics were written in 1788 by Robert Burns, their favorite folk poet of the time. (Later on another version of this song was used in 1783 in the opera “Rosina” by William Shield.) But most musicologists feel that Auld Lang Syne came from a traditional Scottish folk melody.
What does this song mean? In the Scottish dialect, auld lang syne is “old long since” — aka “the good old days.” The traditional lyrics begin with, “Should old acquantance be forgot and never brought to mind…” And the entire song’s message merely means to just forget about the past and look ahead to the new year with hope. Even the rowdiest of parties has often ended with quiet drunks singing this song as a tribute to the past year. But many of us sing it without really now what we are saying, we just sing it to be part of the the auld lang gang of the night! 🙂
Using noise to welcome in a new year goes back to ancient times when it was felt that noise scared off evil spirits. Imagine what our ancestors would have thought about all the high-tech speakers, amplifiers and such today? To them, the world would be pretty pure with all this noise! 🙂 But vary few of us link New Years with evil spirits ( spirits that you drink perhaps but not any other kind), they still feel noisemakers are a must for New Year’s parties. In Denmark, they “smash in the new year” by banging on the doors of their friends’ homes and throwing pieces of broken pottery against the sides of the houses. Now if everyone is out doing this, then well…hey is anyone home to even notice? In Japan, dancers go from house to house at Oshogatsu making strange noises and rattling and pounding bamboo sticks and banging on drums. In many parts of the US, firecrackers are set off at midnight to mark the new year. This is also the main celebration in Viet Nam, Hawaii and South America.
Basically, an old man or even Father Time is the symbol of the year that is coming to a close. And, a baby then becomes the symbol for the new year ahead.
These serve as metaphors for death of one calendar year and the birth of a new one.
History of New Years Day
January 1 st is considered New Years Day in today’s society. But this is a fairly new concept because up until the time of Julius Caesar, the Romans celebrated the New Year in March because it was the first month in the Roman calendar. However, January 1 marked the time when the Romans changed their governmental figures and new consuls were inducted into office. And, they had games and feasting to help celebrate the new officials. But, they still used March 1 as their official mark of the new year and had a festival to their god, Mars (God of War).
It was Caesar who changed the Roman New Year’s Day to January 1 in honor of Janus, (God of all beginnings and gate keeper of heaven and earth). Janus was always depicted with two faces: One looking back to the old year (past) and one looking ahead to the new year (future). One of the customs in the festival honoring Janus was to exchange gifts and then make resolutions to be friendly and good to one another.
When Constantine ruled the Romans and accepted Christianity as their new faith, they kept the Festival of Janus as the New Years Day ( Not March as before) and turned it into a day of prayer and fasting and not parties etc. It was a day for all good Christians to turn over a new leaf. However, the Romans may have accepted January 1 and Janus as the New Year, but many did not accept the turning over a new leaf, prayer and fasting part of it.
However, even in 1582, Great Britian and the English colonies in America still kept March for the beginning of the year. (Spring as a beginning?) It wasn’t until 1752 that Britian (and it’s colonies) adopted the new Gregorian calendar and January 1 as the beginning of the year. But many Puritans in New England felt Janus was an offensive pagan god and chose to simply ignore January 1 as a New Years Day. Instead they just made the entire month of January as “The First Month” of the months.
And, today no one really considers January 1 a fasting day. Ironically, for many it is a major day of feasting on junk food and watching football games on television.
How did New Year’s Resolutions all begin?
Once again, we go back to the wild and crazy parties of the ancient Romans. 🙂 They indulged themselves in alcoholic and sexual excess as a way of acting out all the chaos that they hoped a new year would get rid of. So, the New Year’s festival was a way to start over. By purging yourself of all this so-called excess energy and confessing your sins, there was a hope that you would be much better in the next year ahead.
Now, the Puritans never did approve of all this New Year’s hoopla. So of course they went for this religious renewal of cleanse, purge, fast, confess idea. So they encouraged young people not to waste the new year on foolish things but to use it as an opportunity to make a good change in their lives for the good. So, like some Christians, they made New Year’s vows or pledges focused on overcoming their own weaknesses, to enhance their god-given talents and to make them better citizens to others.
The custom of making New Year’s Resolutions came into vogue in the 20th century. But most of it was done with jest and an understanding that they would not be kept (for long anyway) since humans were naturally backsliders by nature to their naughty habits and ways.
The resolutions today are simply a secular version of the religious vows made in the past toward spiritual perfection. They are often made with good intentions and broken with a sense of humor and renewed annually.