New Year’s Day
In many places people begin their New Year’s celebrations on New Year’s Eve. Oftentimes these celebrations include staying up to ring in the new year. These late-night festivities frequently involve food, drink, fortune-telling, good-luck charms, GAMES — especially games of chance — and, at the stroke of midnight, noisemaking. Exchanging well-wishes for the year ahead is another widespread New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day practice (for the phrase “Happy New Year” in a variety of languages, see MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR). The passing of the old year and the beginning of the new one inevitably call attention to the passing of time, represented by the popular European and American New Year’s symbols FATHER TIME and the New Year’s BABY.
In EUROPE fortune-telling was once a widespread New Year’s Eve custom. People used a wide variety of rituals and spells in order to divine who would marry, who would prosper, who would endure hardship, and who would die in the coming year. Lithuanian folklore provided young people with many formulas for discovering the name of an admirer or a future spouse. Many people continue to use these old folk charms as New Year’s Eve games.
In many countries folklore decrees that certain objects or activities bring luck for the new year. In a number of European countries people practice FIRSTFOOTING, a custom whereby the household’s luck for the year is determined by the first person to step over the threshold after the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve. In GERMANY folk tradition teaches that people who encounter a pig or a chimney sweep on New Year’s Eve or Day will have luck in the year to come. In the PHILIPPINES, round objects—from the polka dots on clothing to round-shaped foods — bring luck on New Year’s Eve. In GREECE, St. Basil’s bread confers good fortune to those who consume it at the start of the year (for more on New Year’s in Greece, see ST. BASIL’S DAY). In SPAIN eating twelve grapes in the last twelve seconds of the old year brings sweetness and good fortune in the new year.
One widespread folk belief asserts that events taking place on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day foretell future trends. Thus people refrain from hard work and hope for good weather and good news during these crucial first hours of the new year. Some Americans practice the custom of kissing their spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend at midnight on New Year’s Eve, presumably as a good-luck charm to insure that love and passion will continue throughout the year.
In some places, such as SYRIA, Greece, and LEBANON, seasonal GIFTS are exchanged on New Year’s Day (for a twentieth-century New Year’s gift bringer, see GRANDFATHER FROST). This custom was once widespread in Europe and America, but shifted in the nineteenth century, when Christmas became the occasion for gift giving among friends and family.
ROMAN NEW YEAR CELEBRATIONS
Many contemporary New Year’s celebrations, with their emphasis on fun and carousing, bear a striking resemblance to those hosted by the ancient Romans (for another ancient New Year’s celebration, see ZAGMUK). The Romans celebrated their new year holiday, called KALENDS, by feasting, singing, drinking, staying up late, masquerading, gambling, gift giving, fortune-telling, and exchanging good wishes for the new year. What’s more, after the institution of the Julian calendar in 45 B.C., the Romans shifted their new year celebrations from March 25 to January 1, a date we eventually inherited from them (for more on the Julian calendar, see OLD CHRISTMAS DAY).
MEDIEVAL NEW YEAR CELEBRATIONS
Although early Christian authorities chose to place Christmas be-tween SATURNALIA, a Roman midwinter festival, and Kalends, the Roman new year celebration, they strongly disapproved of the customs associated with these holidays. For centuries Church officials urged their followers to abandon what they viewed as the riotous pagan practices attached to these festivals. In 567 the second provincial Council of Tours tried to counteract the still-popular Kalends festivities by ordering Christians to fast and do penance during the first few days of the new year.
At the same time, however, they expanded Christmas from a feast day to a season. They declared the days that fall between Christmas and Epiphany to be a festal tide — a period of special observance and rejoicing following an important feast day. These twelve days, often called Christmastide, became better known as the TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS. Since this new festive period now included January 1, practices associated with the Roman new year could easily attach themselves to the CHRISTMAS SEASON. In the seventh century Church officials made a new effort to reclaim the January 1 holiday from pagan celebrations. They introduced a new Christian holy day, the FEAST OF THE CIRCUMCISION, to be celebrated on January 1.
In spite of opposition from Church officials the customs surrounding Kalends lingered on long after Christianity had become the dominant religion in Europe. Religious authorities disapproved of some of these customs more than others, however. For instance, they vehemently denounced masquerades, fortune-telling, excessive drinking, and boisterous behavior in the streets. One researcher has counted at least forty separate documents containing official denunciations of midwinter masquerades. These documents range in dates from the fourth to the eleventh centuries and come from Church authorities in many European lands as well as north Africa and the Near East.
Nevertheless, these criticisms do not appear to have affected ordinary people very much. Medieval new year celebrations continued as fun-filled occasions. Though officially a religious observance, lively folk customs marked the celebration of ST. SYLVESTER’S DAY, also scheduled for January 1. In some countries low-ranking clerics let loose by observing the Feast of Fools on that same date.
In spite of Church denunciations of the magical practices associated with Christmas and New Year’s Day, European folklorists have recorded a multitude of popular beliefs concerning fortune-telling and good-luck charms linked to the Twelve Days of Christmas. One such fortune-telling custom, called firstfooting, was particularly associated with New Year’s Eve. Religious authorities appear to have ignored New Year’s customs which they viewed as more benign, however, such as feasting and gift giving. Indeed, these two Kalends customs flourished in medieval new year celebrations.
NEW YEAR CUSTOMS MIGRATE TO CHRISTMAS
Some researchers believe that a number of ancient new year cus-toms survived the decline of paganism by simply attaching them-selves to the Christmas holiday. For example, many writers trace the decoration of homes and churches with GREENERY back to Roman new year celebrations. Exchanging greetings and good wishes for the new year also dates back to Roman times. Some researchers speculate that late medieval Christmas MASQUES and MUMMING practices may have represented the remnants of Roman new year masquerades.
THE PURITANS AND THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION
In the sixteenth century a religious reform movement surged across Europe giving birth to Protestant Christianity. In ENGLAND during that same century, a new body of religious officials began to complain about the high incidence of masking, mumming, drinking, feasting, dancing, gambling, and gaming associated with the Christmas season. These officials, members of a Protestant religious sect known as the PURITANS, attempted to eradicate these practices by outlawing the celebration of Christmas. What’s more, they argued, New Year’s Eve was better spent in self-examination and prayer than in hard drinking and rowdy revelry.
After the Puritans fell from power the English returned to many of their old Christmas customs. The people of Scotland, however, took many of the Puritan criticisms of Christmas to heart and never really revived their old Christmas celebrations. Instead New Year’s Day became the main midwinter holiday (for more on New Year’s celebrations in Scotland, see HOGMANAY). In fact, Christmas didn’t again become a legal holiday in Scotland until 1958. The Scots referred to New Year’s Day as “Hogmanay,” a word of uncertain origins. Linguists suspect that it evolved from the old French term aguillaneuf, which means New Year’s gift, the last day of the year, or the celebration at which New Year’s gifts are exchanged. A related Spanish word, aguilnaldo, means Christmas tip, New Year’s gift, or, in Latin America, CHRISTMAS CAROL (see also BOXING DAY).
Before the introduction of the Julian calendar in 46 B.C., the Romans began their new year in March. Some scholars believe that they celebrated New Year’s Day on March 25. When Julius Caesar (100 B.C.-44 B.C.) decided to reform the Roman calendar system (resulting in the Julian calendar), he moved New Year’s Day to January 1. According to the Julian calendar, WINTER SOLSTICE fell on DECEMBER 25 and spring equinox fell on March 25. These two dates eventually became feast days in the Christian calendar. Church officials placed the Feast of the Nativity on December 25 and the Feast of the ANNUNCIATION on March 25. During the Middle Ages the religious significance of the Annunciation inclined many European countries to begin the new year on that date. Others began their new year on Christmas Day. In spite of the widespread official recognition of March 25 as New Year’s Day, many ordinary people continued the ancient tradition of ushering in the new year on January 1.
When Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585) authorized the Gregorian calendar reform in 1582 he ordered the official observance of New Year’s Day back to January 1 (see also Old Christmas Day). ITALY, FRANCE, Luxembourg, Spain, and Portugal switched to the new calendar system in that same year. Other European nations dawdled over making this change, primarily for religious reasons. Many Protestant nations hesitated to adopt the calendar for fear of seeming to accept the authority of the Pope. Much of Orthodox eastern Europe viewed the proposed changes as out of step with their religious traditions. Nevertheless, over the next several centuries the European nations slowly began to adopt the Gregorian date for the beginning of the new year. Scotland switched New Year’s Day to January 1 in 1660, Protestant Germany in 1700, and RUSSIA in 1706. England and her colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. Up until that time their new year officially began on March 25, in spite of the fact that many people actually celebrated the holiday on January 1.
FROM THE PURITANS TO THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe and America, New Year’s Eve celebrations still bore a good deal of resemblance to the Roman holiday of Kalends. Many people celebrated the holiday by staying up late in order to indulge in some combination of heavy drinking, public carousing, gaming, masquerading, gambling, feasting, fortune-telling, or dancing. The Puritan campaign against this kind of New Year’s celebration — a continuation of the critique launched centuries ago by the early Christians — enjoyed only limited success, mostly among devout Protestants. By the nineteenth century, however, some concerned Protestants began to promote alternative methods of celebrating New Year’s Eve. They gathered together at WATCH NIGHT services to pray, sing, and worship. They also formed spiritual RESOLUTIONS at the start of the year.
In the nineteenth century, Christmas was becoming an increasingly important holiday (see also CHRISTMAS IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA). As a result, several ancient New Year’s customs migrated towards Christmas and eventually attached themselves to this holiday. People began to send CHRISTMAS CARDS to one another, a greeting that often replaced the New Year’s letter, visit, or formal exchange of good wishes. Similarly, the New Year’s gift, which had been associated with the holiday since Roman times, transferred itself to Christmas. As Christmas grew in importance, New Year’s was drawn into its orbit, becoming a satellite observance surrounding the emerging, major midwinter holiday.
TWENTIETH CENTURY AND BEYOND
Meanwhile, in Soviet Russia (1917-91), government policy turned New Year’s Day into the major midwinter holiday. The government actively discouraged the celebration of Christmas because it was a religious holiday, while promoting the observance of New Year’s Eve and Day. This policy also affected holiday celebrations in countries under Soviet rule, such as BULGARIA, ESTONIA, LATVIA, and LITHUANIA. Soviet officials even tried to encourage the transfer of popular Christmas customs, such as decorating CHRISTMAS TREES, to New Year’s. Since the fall of the Soviet regime in 1991, people have been celebrating Christmas more openly.
In America, Watch Night services declined in popularity throughout the twentieth century. Certain Protestant churches, however, especially those whose congregations are composed mostly of African Americans, still host these observances.
By the twentieth century the custom of making a New Year’s resolution had spread beyond pious Protestant circles into the wider culture, losing its religious associations in the process. People began to mark the start of the new year with a determined effort to improve themselves in some way often to better their health.
In the late twentieth century, yet another campaign to convert traditional New Year’s celebrations got started. Unlike previous efforts, however, this one was secular rather than religious in nature. In 1976 a group of Boston citizens organized an alternative New Year’s Eve celebration called FIRST NIGHT. This civic event, designed as an alcohol-free, family-oriented celebration, featured entertainment by local performing artists. Its success led to its eventual adoption by over 150 American cities, as well as various cities abroad.
Nevertheless, most Americans continue to associate New Year’s Eve with parties. The nation’s best-known party takes place in NEW YORK CITY’s TIMES SQUARE. Although event organizers will not permit those attending the Times Square event to carry in liquor, alcoholic beverages, especially champagne, are common at most American New Year’s Eve parties. Singing the Scottish song “AULD LANG SYNE” has also become a popular American New Year’s Eve custom.
New Year’s Day is a national holiday in the United States. Some African Americans also observe it as EMANCIPATION DAY. Those who attended late-night parties the night before may take advantage of the opportunity to sleep in. Many Americans watch televised football matches on New Year’s Day. These “bowl” games mark the conclusion of the college football season and pit the best teams in the various conferences against one another.
Many southerners, especially African Americans, enjoy a dish called HOPPING JOHN on New Year’s Day. Eating this mixture of black-eyed peas, rice, and pork on New Year’s Day is said to bring luck for the coming year.