Pagan Party: New Year's traditions that hail from the depths of antiquity
By Randy Shore December 26, 2008
If your head really hurts on New Year's Day, you could point your finger at the Babylonians who started this new year revelry nonsense. Though the ancient Romans added the idea of alcoholic excess, or at least perfected it.
Julius Caesar fixed the start of the year on Jan. 1 by letting the previous year run to 445 days rather than the traditional 365. The Roman citizenry made their winter festival Saturnalia a celebration without rules. So, let's blame the Romans.
Any way you slice it, New Year's is among the very oldest and most persistent of human celebrations.
The western world celebrates the new year on Jan. 1 in the early weeks of winter, which is about as sensible as a wooden fireplace. For some thousands of years before Julie and the Roman Senate got involved, the new year was celebrated with the first edible crops of the season or the first new moon.
In much of India, Nava Varsha is celebrated in March or April, just as in the most ancient civilizations.
Sikhs celebrate Hola Mohalla in March; ditto for Persian Nowruz.
As celebrated in China and southeast Asia, Lunar New Year still has a floating date, the first day of the first lunar month.
That brand of rhythm with the earth and moon stuff is just a little too hocus pocus for the stiffs that run the western world. We like fixed dates, Gaia be damned.
The Babylonians celebrated with a feast and by returning borrowed farm equipment as it would soon be needed to work the fields.
In fact, feasting on lucky foods is the most ancient new year tradition and one that is mostly lost on young Canadians who mostly opt for the boozing and vomiting option.
(How many tuxedos and sequined party dresses have to die before we learn our lesson?)
The new year celebration is an observance of the earth's ability to renew itself and sustain us for another year. In agrarian societies - that used to be all societies - foods were the most potent of all new year's symbols. (See my attached list of lucky foods.)
'"It's as simple as new year equals more food equals party,'" said Toronto literary researcher Gordon Timmis. '"And that basic equation persisted from the most ancient times right through the middle ages to modern times, despite the best efforts of the Christian churches to snuff it out.'"
The Catholic church has at times banned revelry around the new year, ignored it through the middle ages and even tried to schedule its own holiday to replace it with the rather unappetizing Feast of Christ's Circumcision (I do not lie).
Some Anglican and Orthodox churches still observe the feast on Jan. 1. The Catholics finally gave up on it in the 60s.
No matter what the date, most cultures older than ours plan the party around food and not blue martinis.
In Norse tradition the month-long Yule celebration ended around the new year with a blow-out feast of Viking proportions.
Chinese New Year is marked with a large multi-course meal.
In Scotland Hogmanay is celebrated for at least two or three, even four days (Again, I do not lie. It's the Norse influence.) and guests are expected to bring whiskey or fruitcake to every person they visit.
Non-food related symbols come to us from the ancients.
Ancient Egyptian and Greek societies paraded a baby around to symbolize the new year, at the end of winter when the crops sprouted, not the beginning when we do it.
Baby New remains a popular symbol and turns up at celebrations even today. TV and print newsrooms still fall all over themselves to find the first baby of the new year and your local chamber of commerce probably showers the lucky infant with gifts.
Father Time, who symbolizes the passage of time and the death of the old year, is a much more complex creature.
His most ancient manifestations come from India. Yama the god of death and justice is described in the Vedas and the Upanishads, making him at least 3,500 years old and probably much older.
Yama maintains order in the afterworld and assigns people their reincarnations, sometimes as a richer and more powerful person, other times a cockroach.
As the ruler of death and new beginnings, Yama has profoundly influenced later precursors of Father Time such as Rome's Pluto, Chronos, the Greek god of time, and the Grim Reaper of English and northern European tradition.
He is a kindly looking old fellow these days, sometimes depicted holding Baby New Year, but few mothers in the ancient world would have willingly handed their infant to such a being.
At the stroke of Midnight, as the old year passes into the new, only one tradition is left: the kiss.
Thank the Romans. Again.
They loved kissing and incorporated it into their Solstice and Saturnalia celebrations. Thus kissing as a New Year's Eve tradition persists today in most of their empire and, as a result, it has spread throughout the new world.
The kiss is meant to set the tone for the new year, so be careful who you are standing near when the clock strikes 12. Pick a loved one.
Awkward is not the tone you want to set for a whole year.
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