Origins of New Years Festival


The earliest-known record of a New Year's festival dates from about 2000 BC in Mesopotamia, where the New Year (Akitu) commenced with the new moon nearest the spring equinox (mid-March; Babylonia) or nearest the autumn equinox (mid-September; Assyria). The year began for the Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Persians with the autumn equinox (September 21) and for the Greeks, until the 5th century BC, with the winter solstice (December 21). By the Roman republican calendar the year began on March 1; after 153 BC the official date was January 1, and this was confirmed by the Julian calendar (46 BC).

In the Jewish religious calendar the year begins with the first day of the month of Tishri (September 6-October 5; Rosh Hashana). In early medieval times most of Christian Europe regarded March 25 (Annunciation Day) as the beginning of the year, though for Anglo-Saxon England New Year's Day was December 25. William the Conqueror decreed that the year start on January 1, but, later, England began its year with the rest of Christendom on March 25. January 1 was restored as New Year's Day by the Gregorian calendar (1582), immediately adopted by Roman Catholic countries. Other countries slowly followed suit: Scotland, 1660; Germany and Denmark, about 1700; England, 1752; Sweden, 1753; and Russia, 1918. Observances of the secular New Year in the West vary regionally but typically entail the preparation of a customary meal (as "hoppin' John," a dish of peas and rice, in the U.S. South) and the making of personal resolutions for the coming year. (See Middle Ages.)

Most Eastern New Year festivals retain a distinctly religious character. In Dravidian southern India, the Tamil New Year is celebrated at winter solstice with the three-day Pongal festival, marked by religious pilgrimages and the ritual boiling of new rice. In Bangladesh the New Year is marked by the worship of the Ganges.

Pre-Buddhist indigenous and Hindu influences are prominent in Southeast Asian festivals. In Thailand, Trut, or New Year (March/April), is of a mixed character. Buddhist monks exorcise ghosts from the vicinity and are presented with gifts. Oblations are made to various gods of Hindu origin. As people meet, water is playfully thrown by one on the other. Gambling, usually frowned upon, is permitted for the three-day festival.

Chinese New Year is celebrated officially for a month beginning in late January or early February. It is preceded by an expulsion of demons and by theatrical performances. Offerings are made to gods of hearth and wealth and to ancestors. Tibetans observe the New Year in February with feasting, visiting, and a relaxation of monastic discipline.

The celebration of the New Year on January 1-3 is the most popular annual festival in Japan. In some rural districts it continues to be observed according to the lunar-solar calendar on dates varying between January 20 and February 19, and the traditions connected with the festival confirm its original connection with the coming of spring and a time of rebirth. The festival is called in Japanese Ganjitsu ("Original Day"), signifying the beginning of the new year, and also Shogatsu ("Standard Month"), referring to the belief that the good or bad fortune met with during the first few days of the new year may be taken as representative of the fortune for the entire coming year.

The Japanese festival is customarily celebrated with ceremonial housecleaning, feasting, and exchanging visits and gifts. The house gateway or entrance is often hung with a shimenawa (a sacred rope made of rice straw) to keep out evil spirits and decorated with fern, bitter orange, and lobster, signifying good fortune, prosperity, and longevity. Foods special to the holidays are mochi (cakes of rice paste) and zoni (a soup of vegetables and mochi). Traditional amusements are shuttlecock and utagaruta, a card game that involves matching lines of 100 poems.

Other Japanese observances--once widespread but now diminished--included, early on the first day, visits to Shinto shrines of the tutelary deities or to Buddhist temples. On the second day, arts and crafts were ritually recommenced. On the seventh day, a rice gruel containing seven purifying herbs was traditionally served and the decorations removed.



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