Today I offer you some slightly slanted observations about the event we call “New Years Day.”
No, New Year’s Day wasn’t invented by a bunch of teenagers looking to party, a football league, or even Hallmark. It goes back to 2000 BC, to ancient Babylon. They celebrated Spring, a time of rebirth, by starting a new year at the first New Moon after the Vernal Equinox. And they celebrated big, for eleven days. The Romans continued the practice but ran into a problem: the emperors kept changing the calendar, which moved New Year’s around until it was far off from its original timing. Mainly, they observed it on March 15, although at one point Dionysius Exiguus changed it to March 25 to honor the Annunciation of Jesus. The Roman senate declared it Jan. 1, but, being politicians, it was as solid as modern day campaign promises. Finally, in 46 BC when Julius Caesar established the Julian calendar, he kept the current year going for 445 days in order to fit the new calendar with the sun’s cycle, just so he could establish New Year’s on Jan. 1. (Could this have been his way to “beware the ides of March”?)
Enter the Catholic Church. Apparently, people were having too much unauthorized fun. They tried to put an end to the pagan frivolities and, after awhile, replaced them with religious observances, moving New Year’s around to coincide with various feast days. That’s how it came to be a holy day to anyone using the Julian calendar, including some Eastern Orthodox churches.
Baby New Year began in Greece about 6000 BC. It grew out of the Greeks’ celebration of Dionysus, god of wine, symbolized by a baby in a basket which was carried about the streets to represent fertility. Early Christians liked the idea of a babe embodying the spirit of rebirth, because the baby Jesus brought the supreme rebirth. Ultimately, the Church, despite her continued denunciation of New Year’s festivities as pagan, allowed a celebration including a baby, so long as it clearly represented Baby Jesus. The Germans, who had used the baby symbol since the 14th century, eventually brought this idea with them to America.
New Year’s, then, is historically a time of new beginnings. Whether we plant crops, as in ancient days, or make resolutions, which we’ll break within a month, we can enter into its true spirit. We can put behind us last year’s unthinking and unthinkable actions and carry with us the fruit of our kind and generous ones. Instead of resolving to make this a more peaceful world, we can roll up our sleeves and just do it.
Mmmmmm. Maybe that’s a New Year’s Resolution, after all.