Monday, 3 June 2019

New Year Traditions

No doubt this will seem like a crazy time of year to be thinking about this, but have you ever wondered where New Year resolutions came from? Or why New Year shifts around between different nations?

Well, New Year in New Zealand is a double-whammy. While broader New Zealand follows the Western tradition of 1 January, Matariki is the Māori New Year. Matariki is the Māori name for the Pleiades, a constellation and star path used for navigation. Its rise in the southern hemisphere winter - usually June - marks the start of a new year (Te Ara, 12 June 2006). So mid-winter and mid-summer are a pretty normal times to think about New Year if you are a Kiwi.

Resolutions apparently are due to the Iraqis of the ancient world. First observed in ancient Babylon - Iraq -  about 4000 years ago, the new year celebration is our oldest global holiday. Around 2000 BC, the Babylonian New Year began on the first day of northern hemisphere spring; the first new moon after the spring equinox (Peterson, 28 December 2017).

Babylonian celebrations lasted for eleven days, and as part of the party, citizens made resolutions (Dishman, 28 December 2018). Apparently the most popular resolution was to return borrowed farm equipment. Hah ...I'd like it if today some people's resolution was to return the books they had borrowed from me!

The Romans continued with the Babylonian tradition of having new year in late March, but their eternal tinkering with their calendar got them out of sync with the sun, until in 46 BC, Julius Caesar let the current year drag on for 445 days, declaring January 1 to be the beginning of the New Year (Dishman, 28 December 2018).

The Romans didn't tend to go in for resolutions so much though: more on the "feasting until they popped". The Jews seem to have kept the resolution practice up though, particularly with the idea that things need to be returned and all bills paid by the last day of the year (McElravy, 2 January 2018).

The Chinese New Year falls on a different date each year. Running for 15 days, the first day of the new year is the first new moon and ends on the full moon 15 days later, known as the spring festival (Kelly, n.d.). As the Chinese calendar is sun & moon-based, they have to "catch up" with the solar calendar by inserting an extra month once each 7 years out of 19.

New Year has only been celebrated as a holiday by Western nations for the past 400 years. While some denominations observe New Year as the Feast of Christ's Circumcision (McElravy, 2 January 2018), New Year is an essentially pagan festival, adopted by the church post-middle ages. I wonder if this might have been a strategic marketing move by the church, under the "better with them than against them" principle.

Western modern New Year traditions are to (a) have a party and (b) make resolutions, with the most popular resolutions being (Dishman, 28 December 2018; Peterson, 28 December 2017):
  • getting fit
  • losing weight
  • saving more / spending less
The old Scottish tune, "Auld Lang Syne" - which literally means "old long ago," and colloquially "the good old days" - is sung at the stroke of midnight in almost every English-speaking country in the world to bring in the New Year.  Early variations predate 1700 with Robbie Burns documenting the accepted 'modern' version, published posthumously in 1796 (, 7 February 2017). Most of us only know one verse anyway - and get the words wrong at that!



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