It’s New Year’s, and people around the world will be celebrating the ability to count backwards from ten with fireworks, champagne, and cacophonous renditions of Auld Lang Syne. As an annual festival, New Year’s jostles for position with Valentine’s Day for the most-overhyped and symbolically analyzed day of the year. No matter what happened in the previous year, a successful New Year’s Eve augurs well for the coming months.
The idea that January 1st initiates a period of new beginning is not a flash of Hallmark brilliance. While our current calendar follows that instated by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 and is based on the Julian calendar set by the emperor Julius Caesar in 46 BCE, the successful orbit of the earth around the sun has been celebrated throughout the year in many cultures. So, even if you don’t have a stranger to kiss at midnight, here are some other traditions for ushering in the New Year.
New Year’s celebrations seem to have begun in Ancient Babylon. It was known as the feast of Akitu, and it was celebrated in April. Like many ancient New Year’s festivals, it lauded creation and fertility on both an agricultural and cosmic scale. The mythic origin of the feast was the creation of the world by the god Marduk. According to the myth called Enuma Elish, the world came into existence when Marduk slew his female rival Tiamat and created the heavens and the earth out of her dismembered carcass. At the Akitu festival people gathered to marvel at the wonders of creation and the victory of murderous, bloody order over chaos.
Given the somewhat macabre origins of the feast, many of the celebrations were designed to placate the gods. After parading statues of the gods through the streets, the king was stripped of his regalia and swore that he had led the city with honor. He was then literally slapped around by the high priest, who pulled on his ears in an effort to produce tears. Making the monarch cry was supposed to affirm the king’s power and divine authority. I guess we’ve always loved the strong but sensitive types.
Self-abasement extended to people at large. Those looking to curry the favor of the notoriously temperamental deities would promise to pay off debts and return borrowed farm equipment. Overdue credit card balances and rusty hedge clippers aside, the periodic renewal of vows in ancient Babylonian ritual is often cited as the roots of our New Years’ resolutions. It’s an alternative form of fitspiration for those planning to take up running this year. As you plant one foot in front of another on the corpse of an ancient deity, remember you’re in it for the after pics and Marduk.
The Italians set the calendar as we now have it, so it’s reasonable to expect something a little flashier and well thought-out from them. Ancient Romans exchanged gifts of figs and honey and would make sure to work part of the day as a good omen for the coming year. Today Italians celebrate December 31 (San Silvestro’s day) with lentils—more nutritious but less delicious—and place a fashionable twist on the affair: red underwear is the order of the day for those wanting good luck in the coming year.
Sartorial choices feature in the New Year’s plans of other cultures, too. In Brazil people color code their underwear according to their needs. Red signals that one is looking for love; yellow signifies wealth and success; blue and green are worn for good health and well being, and white for peace and tranquility. Leave it to the Brazilians to make New Year’s sexy.
Many people use the New Year as an opportunity to turn over a new leaf, but in Colombia, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, self-help exercises are taken to a whole other level. Families stuff a life-size male doll with memories of the outgoing year and dress him in their clothing. At midnight the doll is set on fire. The burning of Mr. Old Year is more about excoriating old memories, and maybe rejuvenating the wardrobe, than about burning actual people. But if burning away bad memories in effigy seems a bit archaic, bear in mind that in England school children have been burning proto-terrorist Catholic Guy Fawkes in effigy every November 5 for hundreds of years.
Historical justifications for most modern celebrations can be found in the ancient world. The ancient Egyptian festival of Wepet Renpet (“opening of the year”) was not just a time of rebirth—it was dedicated to drinking. Archeological discoveries at the Temple of Mut in Egypt have revealed that during the reign of Hatshepsut the first month of the year included a “Festival of Drunkenness.” The festival was based on a myth in which the god Seth saved mankind from the war mongering goddess Sekhmet when he got her blackout drunk. So at 11:30 on New Year’s, remember: it’s Wepet Renpet somewhere!
The takeaway is clear: whether you want to get rid of some old clothes, buy colored lingerie in the post-holiday sales, or treat yourself to a frosty malted beverage, you’re just joining a millennia-long line of folks who were looking for an excuse to cut loose a little, even if only once a year.