Around the globe people have celebrated the beginning of the new year for millennia. 4,000 years ago Babylonians celebrated the the new year during the first new moon in late March after the vernal equinox — the day with an equal amount of darkness and sunlight. c. 2000 B.C. the new year was celebrated around the time of the vernal equinox, in mid-March, in Mesopotamia. Today, most New Year’s celebrations start on New Year’s Eve, December 31, the final day of the year on the Gregorian calendar, and continue through New Year’s Day on January first.
The Babylonia Akitu festival included different rituals for 11 days. The victory of the mythical Marduk, a sky god, over the sea goddess Tiamat, was celebrated during the event. A new king was also crowned, or the current king's divine mandate was renewed. Ancient Persians gave New Year's gifts of eggs that symbolized productiveness. Romans offered sacrifices to Janus, the god of beginnings with two faces that could see the past and the future. They held raucous parties, exchanged gifts and decorated with laurel branches.
Civilizations throughout the world have continuously developed more sophisticated calendars, usually making the first day of each year fall on an astronomical or agriculturally important event. In Egypt, the first day of the year coincided with the annual flooding of the Nile and the rising of the Sirius star. In China, the first day of the year coincided with the second new moon following the winter solstice. In 46 B.C. Julius Caesar chose to realign the Roman calendar with the sun, adding an extra 90 days to the year to create the Julian calendar. The Julian calendar closely resembles the current Gregorian calendar observed by most countries today.
Medieval Christian authorities temporarily changed the beginning of the year to more religiously significant dates such as December 25 (Christmas) and March 25 (the Feast of the Annunciation). In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII changed New Year’s Day back to January 1. It took some time for Protestant countries to adopt the Gregorian calendar. Britain did not follow the reformed calendar until 1752. Until then, the British Empire, and their American colonies, continued to celebrate the new year in March.
Around the world, people incorporate a variety of New Year’s traditions into their celebrations. In the United States, people begin celebrating the new year on December 31, New Year’s Eve. Many people have parties, and sometimes masquerade balls, where guests dress up in costume and cover their faces with masks to hide their identity. According to an old tradition, guests unmask, or remove their masks, at midnight.
The New Year’s kiss is a German and English tradition. It is believed the first person you encounter in a new year will set that year’s tone.
Many people enjoy the tradition of watching the New Year’s festivities in Times Square in the heart of New York City. This celebration is telecast live on news channels across the nation. The first New Year’s Eve party in Times Square took place in 1904 to celebrate The New York Times’s new headquarters.
Traditionally, at one minute before midnight, a lighted ball begins to drop slowly from the top of a pole that is attached to a building. As the ball drops, all the people in Times Square — and many television viewers as well — count down the final minute of the year. At the stroke of midnight, the ball reaches the bottom of the pole, and a huge “Happy New Year” sign lights up. Then Times Square is filled with cheers and noisemakers. Confetti is dropped from windows above, and revelers hug, kiss, and wish each other a “Happy New Year!”
The tradition of counting down the last minute or final seconds of the year is a highlight of New Year’s Eve, not only in Times Square, but at parties and get-togethers throughout the nation. The excitement grows as partygoers watch the clock and count 10! 9! 8! 7! 6!…and shout “Happy New Year!” at exactly midnight, heralding in the new year. Some towns and cities host a “First Night” celebration, a large community street party featuring food, music, and other entertainment. First Night parties provide a safe and, often, alcohol-free environment for people of all ages to socialize, celebrate, and “ring in the New Year” together.
At New Year’s Eve parties, people often sing a traditional Scottish song, “Auld Lang Syne,” just after the clock strikes midnight and the cheers of “Happy New Year” subside. Auld Lang Syne was written in the 18th century by the Scottish poet Robert Burns, and may be based on an earlier poem by another Scottish poet. The expression “auld lang syne” means “the old days gone by.”
On January first, Americans may relax at home or visit friends, relatives, and neighbors. New Year’s Day get-togethers are often informal, but generally there is plenty to eat and drink as loved ones and friends wish each other the best for the year ahead.
The holidays are often a time for family, fun, and food. New Year’s is no exception. One thing many nations around the world have in common is the belief that eating certain foods on New Year’s will bring good luck and prosperity in the 12 months to follow.
One New Year’s tradition the South is especially known for is eating black-eyed peas and collard greens. It is believed that a meal with black-eyed peas and collards symbolizes humility and a new year full of coins and “green” (money). Lentils are another popular legume on New Year’s for the same reason.
Eating Sauerkraut on New Year's Eve is a German tradition to bring wealth and blessings for the new year. Before eating, everyone wishes each other as much goodness and money as the number of shreds of cabbage in the pot.
A fun New Year’s tradition is trying to eat 12 grapes at midnight. Some believe that each chime of the clock represents a month of the year and that the reveler must eat one grape with each chime for 12 months of good luck. Some even say you should make a wish with each grape.
Eating noodles is said to symbolize a long life. Eating ring-shaped cakes represents the year coming full circle.
Many families and friends watch television together enjoying the Tournament of Roses Parade, which precedes the Rose Bowl football game — both held in Pasadena, California. The parade was started in 1890, when Professor Charles F. Holder suggested to the Pasadena Valley Hunt Club that they sponsor a parade to showcase the winter beauty and sunshine of the area. The parade was to be “an artistic celebration of the ripening of the oranges” at the beginning of the year. The event grew, and in 1895 the Tournament of Roses Association was formed to oversee the festivities. Soon, athletic competitions became part of the day’s events. To enhance the event and increase public interest, a collegiate football game was added in 1902, with Stanford University playing against the University of Michigan. Today, the New Year’s Day Rose Bowl game, featuring the two top college football teams in the nation is, for many Americans, the highlight of New Year’s Day.
From year to year the parade of floats grew longer, and now the procession takes over 2 1/2 hours to travel the 5 1/2-mile parade route through the streets of Pasadena, California. The flower decorations also grew more elaborate. Today the floats include hightech animation, and every inch of the float must be covered with flowers or other natural plant material. The theme of the Tournament of Roses varies from year to year, and the parade now includes thousands of participants in marching bands and on the floats. City officials and celebrities ride in the cars pulling the floats, and a celebrity is chosen to be the grand marshal. The queen of the tournament, along with her court, rides on a special float, which is always the most elaborate, being made from more than 250,000 flowers. Prizes are still given for the best, most beautiful floats.
Thousands of spectators line the parade route, arriving early in the morning or camping out overnight in order to secure the best spot for viewing the parade, which begins at 8 am. Spectators and participants alike enjoy the pageantry associated with the occasion. Preparation for next year’s Tournament of Roses begins on January 2.
Watching football games and parades is not the only tradition on New Year’s Day. Americans, like people in many countries, also promise to better themselves in the new year. Some Americans even write down their New Year’s resolutions — promises to themselves for improvement in the coming year.