Christmas is over, the presents have been opened, and soon the winter holiday break will give way to the resumption of the normalcy denied us for the past month. For many people, the new year brings contemplation and resolutions, such as pledges to oneself: eat fewer sweets, exercise more, be nicer, write a novel, read more books, watch less television.
I’m not one for New Year’s Resolutions, but as I sip my New Year’s champagne (never optional) I am sometimes contemplative. I’ll post later on my goals for the new year (far different from resolutions), but for now, 2016 finds me thinking about the origins of our New Year’s celebrations.
January 1 hasn’t always been the start of the new year. The Babylonians started the new year on the first new moon following the vernal equinox, in March. The ancient Egyptians began a new year with the annual flooding of the Nile, which coincided with the rising of the star Sirius, in August. In Chinese culture, the traditional new year still begins with the second new moon after the winter solstice. In Jewish tradition, the New Year, Rosh Hashanah, takes place in the autumn, 163 days after the first day of Passover.
The January New Year we celebrate today is the creation of the Romans. According to History.com, “in 46 B.C. the emperor Julius Caesar … introduced the Julian calendar, which closely resembles the more modern Gregorian calendar that most countries around the world use today. … Caesar instituted January 1 as the first day of the year, partly to honor the month’s namesake: Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, whose two faces allowed him to look back into the past and forward into the future. Romans celebrated by offering sacrifices to Janus, exchanging gifts with one another, decorating their homes with laurel branches and attending raucous parties.” Not too many laurel branches any more, but I think we’ve got the raucous party part nailed down.
Many New Year’s traditions are associated with foods that are thought to bring luck in the new year. In the southern United States (and my house, because I like them), it’s customary to eat black-eyed peas and collard greens. In Spain, people eat a dozen grapes in the twelve seconds immediately before midnight (never heard of this one before, but I look forward to watching the kid try it next year–I think I’ll stick to fermented grapes). Again according to History.com, rice pudding with an almond hidden inside is served in Sweden on New Year’s Eve; whoever finds the nut will have good fortune in the following year. Of course, other sources say it’s served on Christmas eve, and whoever finds the almond will get married. Whichever is true, it occurs to me that this is likely the origin of my Swedish mother-in-law’s Christmas eve menu: rice pudding (sans almond) and Swedish meatballs (without gravy, thank you very much).
In Britain, the New Year is also known as Hogmanay, particularly in Scotland, and involves singing Auld Lang Syne (written by Scottish poet Robert Burns) at midnight, and partying to the wee hours. The “first footing” (the first foot across the threshold on New Year’s Day) was said to have indicated how one’s luck would go in the next year. The luckiest visitor would be a dark-haired male, carrying coal, shortbread, salt, black bun, and whisky. Women and blond-haired men could stay home.
Whatever your traditions may be, I wish you and yours a happy, healthy New Year, filled with love, romance, and lots of great books.