Happy New Year to You!
Looking at New Year celebrations through the ages
by Helen Bryant (revised, originally published in 2010)
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To consider the history of New Year celebrations.
Preparation and materials
Optional: Little preparation is needed for this assembly, but you might like to use some party poppers and balloons to create the right mood. (Note: remember to take into account any health and safety considerations.)
Happy New Year! Yes, it’s that time again when we look ahead to what the new year will bring us. I have no doubt that some of you went to parties, hanging on until the countdown to midnight and then wishing everyone ‘Happy New Year!’ Maybe you were kissed and hugged by people you knew well, and maybe by some whom you didn’t. New Year engenders hope, promise and excitement for the coming year and all that it will bring us.
Have you ever stopped to wonder why we celebrate New Year in this way? And why does our new year begin on 1 January?
Other cultures celebrate New Year at different times in the year. Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is celebrated in September or October. Chinese New Year falls in January or February and the date depends on the cycle of the moon. So why do most western countries take 1 January as New Year’s Day?
Let me tell you a little about the history of the celebration of New Year. This celebration is the oldest of all holidays. It was first observed in ancient Babylon about 4,000 years ago. In the years around 2,000 BC, the Babylonian new year was usually in March, and began with the first new moon, the first visible crescent, after the vernal equinox. In the northern hemisphere, this is the first day of spring.
The beginning of spring is a logical time to start a new year because everything is just starting to grow again, or is coming out of hibernation, after the winter. Spring is the season of rebirth, when new crops are planted and plants begin to blossom. It would seem that 1 January, on the other hand, has no astronomical or agricultural significance and was chosen for no particular symbolic reason.
The Babylonian New Year celebration lasted for 11 days, rather than our traditional evening and day. Each day had its own special mode of celebration, and it is safe to say that modern New Year festivities pale in comparison. It would be good to be able to tack some extra days onto the Christmas holidays, though, wouldn’t it?
In Roman times, the new year continued to be observed in late March although, as time went on, various emperors tampered with their calendar, so the calendar fell out of synchronization with the sun and the seasons.
In 153 BC, to set the calendar right, the Roman senate declared that 1 January would be the beginning of the new year. This is where we get the date of our new year. However, Roman emperors continued to tamper with the calendar until eventually, in 46 BC, Julius Caesar established what has come to be known as the Julian calendar.
Not only is Julius Caesar remembered for making the Roman Empire one of the largest empires in our known history, he is also famous for introducing the familiar 12-month calendar. Under this calendar, 1 January was still the date of the new year. However, to synchronize the new calendar with the sun, Caesar had to let the previous year drag on for 445 days! That must have been a very long wait for the new year and all the excitement that it brings.
So, since the time of Julius Caesar, we have celebrated the coming of the new year on 1 January. People have sung, celebrated and looked forward on 1 January for over 2,050 years.
Time for reflection
Imagine how many wishes of a good year there have been over the centuries! It is amazing to think that our wishes may not have been all that different to those of other people many years ago. How many of them, do you think, kept their New Year’s resolutions?
Please journey with us through this coming year.
Help us to follow our dreams and to live our joys and our sorrows.
Help us to think about other people and the effect that our actions will have upon their lives.
‘Morning has broken’ (Come and Praise, 1)