The Meaning of New Year's Traditions

From ancient times, people have welcomed the new year with rituals to attract good fortune. Here's a sampling.

New Year's Eve, with its emphasis on romance and indulgence, might seem like a totally secular celebration. But underneath all that glitter and sparkle is an ancient holiday with deep spiritual roots. For centuries, and in similar ways, people have been observing the end of one year and the beginning of another.



Ancient Romans celebrated with six days of carousing that would probably be familiar to us today. St. Boniface, a missionary from England who visited Rome in 742, was appalled at how the Romans celebrated Kalends of January, as the New Year was called, with "dancing in the streets, heathenish cries, sacrilegious songs, tables laden with food and women wearing amulets and offering them for sale."

A Time of Rebirth

Because the Winter Solstice is the turning point of the year, beginning the lengthening of days, it has long been viewed as the birth of the year--by pagans celebrating the return of the Sun, and by Christians welcoming the birth of the Son of God. The days between Solstice and the New Year are a magical, luminous time period, when anything is possible. In England, the Twelve Days of Christmas were considered omen days which could be used to predict the weather in the coming year. In Scotland, no court had power during these days; and in Ireland, tradition held that if a person died during the Twelve Days, he or she went straight to Heaven.

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In ancient Babylon, the days between the Winter Solstice and the New Year were seen as the time of a struggle between Chaos and Order, with Chaos trying to take over the world. Other cultures (Hindu, Chinese, Celtic) also viewed this as a time for reversing order and rules-celebrants would change roles with servants or dress in costumes for a time until order was restored.

Starting Fresh

While each culture's New Year celebration has its own flavor, there are certain common themes. The period leading up to New Year's Day is a time for setting things straight: a thorough housecleaning, paying off debts, returning borrowed objects, reflecting on one's shortcomings, mending quarrels, giving alms. In many cultures, people jump into the sea or a local body of water-literally washing the slate clean.

In some towns in Italy, I've been told, you have to watch out for falling objects, as people shove their old sofas, chairs and even refrigerators out of their windows on New Year's Eve. In Ecuador, people make dummies, stuffed with straw, to represent the events of the past year. These "ano viejo" effigies are burned at midnight, thus symbolically getting rid of the past.

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Waverly Fitzgerald
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