New Year's History and Traditions Around the World

The Romans Changed New Year's to Jan. 1

Roman God Janus
January is named for the Roman god Janus. altrendo travel/Altrendo/Getty Images

Celebrating the new year goes back 4000 years ago, but in western cultures, it started 400 years ago. The holiday began in ancient Babylonia, now Iraq, around 2000 B.C.

The Babylonians began their new year near the end of March, a logical time to start a new year since winter was over, spring with its new life was beginning, and farmers started planting crops for the coming year.

In 153 B.C., the Roman senate decreed the new year to begin on January 1 to correct the calendar, which had become out of synch with the sun.

The Acceptance of the New Year's Celebration

Although January 1 had no agricultural or seasonal significance, it did have a civil one. On that date the newly elected Roman consuls would step into their positions. Interestingly, the month of January is named for the Roman god Janus, who had two faces, which can represent looking back at the old year and one looking forward to the new one.

Celebrating the new year was a pagan practice and for that reason, the early Christian church condemned it. However, in order to more easily convert pagans to Christianity, the Church accepted the celebration on January 1, but made it the Feast of Christ's Circumcision.

New Year's Resolutions

Making resolutions on New Year's is as old as the holiday itself. The Babylonians would make resolutions, the most popular one being to return farm equipment! The ancient Romans also made resolutions for the new year, their most popular one being to ask for forgiveness from their enemies.

The Anglo-Saxons, who settled what is England, had a festival called Yule, which celebrated a fertile and peaceful season. The boar was a part of this celebration and people would make solemn "boar oaths" for the coming year.

Celebrating the New Year in Germany

Germans melt small pieces of lead in a spoon over a lit candle for New Year's.

They drop the melted lead into cold water, where it hardens into shapes, which predict the future. A heart or ring shape, for example, means a wedding.

Celebrating the New Year in Greece

The Greeks bake a gold or silver coin into a cake as part of their celebration. The person who gets the piece of cake with the coin inside will be lucky for the rest of the year.

Celebrating the New Year in Japan

The Japanese clean their homes inside and out before the New Year. At midnight on New Year's Eve, a monk at a local shrine strikes a gong to signify the forgiving of the past year's mistakes.

Celebrating the New Year in the Netherlands

With the goal of purging the old year and welcome in the new one, the Dutch make bonfires in the street out of their Christmas trees.

Celebrating the New Year in Scotland

Firstfooting-people visit neighbors just after midnight to wish them well for the new year. If the first person to step foot into your house is a tall, dark and handsome man, you will have good luck in the new year.

Celebrating the New Year in Spain

The Spanish believe eating twelve grapes at midnight on New Year's Eve will bring twelve months of happiness.

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