10 Things You Might Not Know About the New Year

Father TimeNew Year is a celebration we can all get behind. While it might not occur at the same time every year for all of us, the concept of starting a new year, and cultivating new beginnings, has been perpetuated among human beings for a very, very long time.

To add some food for thought as 2011 comes to a close, I present ten bits of New Year trivia for you.

  • We have the Romans to thank for the Western New Year, January. While, technically, the Roman New Year began on the first of March, it was changed to reflect a very secular sign: when the senate came into session. While official dates changed through rulers and emperors, by 153 B.C. it was set to the date we now celebrate. Pope Gregory XIII, father of the Gregorian calendar, introduced the “official” New Year to Christendom in 1582.
  • While Catholic nations accepted the Gregorian calendar, it took some time for it to catch on in Protestant nations. Great Britain, and its then Colonies, did not enact the Gregorian calendar until 1752. The last holdout was Sweden.
  • In many cultures, the symbol of the New Year takes form in a cherubic, or often infant, Baby New Year. This tradition dates back to the ancient Greece and is related to the festival of Dionysus, the god of wine, song, and celebration. During celebrations to Dionysus, a newborn was often paraded about, symbolizing prosperity and fertility for the crops in the coming year.
  • In Western culture, the New Year is the last of the celebrations in the holiday season, after Thanksgiving and Christmas. A marathon celebration of sorts. But in ancient Babylon, the New Year celebrations lasted for eleven days, commencing with the first New Moon after the Vernal Equinox.
  • New Years ResolutionThe New Year is a big deal in France, where it is known as Jour des Étrennes, and it lasts from January 1st until the 6th. They often drink warm wine—a similar beverage of varying recipe called caribou is also imbibed in French-speaking Canada during the Carnaval de Québec in February—and celebrated by eating la galette des rois, a special cake with a tiny king or bean baked inside. This has also been adopted in Louisiana.
  • For children born after 1975 in the US, much of our concepts of the New Year have been shaped by the Rankin/Bass film Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, a sequel to the stop motion classic Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Rudolph travels through the Archipelago of Time, where old years retire after they’ve run their course. There’s also something about a huge, horrifying bird, and a baby named Happy, too. Really, I have a feeling if I ever watch this film again I might never recover. It did, however, introduce the word “archipelago” to my lexicon, for which I am quite grateful.
  • During the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, honey is often eaten to represent the coming of a sweet new year. Other cultures also celebrate with feasts and special foods.
  • In Scotland, the New Year is called Hogmanay. Believed to be connected to ancient solstice celebrations, Hogmanay in large part was practiced in secret during the Protestant Reformation but became more public again in the 17th century. My favorite Hogmanay tradition is called the “first-footing”: at midnight, the first person to cross the threshold of a friend or neighbor brings symbolic gifts of salt, coal, shortbread, and fruitcake (called black bun). Local customs vary widely in Scotland, as well, including those in Dundee carrying a decorated herring as first-footers, as well as the burning of the clavie—adapted from ancient pre-Christian celebrations—in Burghead.
  • Auld Lang Syne” roughly means “long, long, ago” and is at least partially penned by Robert Burns. When Burns sent the song to the Scots Musical Museum, he wrote, “The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.” While the tune itself is not agreed upon, it has still become one of the most recognized songs worldwide.

Some recipes for caribou and mulled wine.

How to make a galette des rois.

And, to share the love, the song from Rudolph’s Shiny New Year I remember most:

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20 Responses to 10 Things You Might Not Know About the New Year

  1. The traditional New Year’s meal is regional – here in the south it has always been eating a bowl of black eyed peas (I personally prefer them served over rice).

    Tradition has it that eating them is a sign of humility and asking for good luck in the new year.

  2. Broadly speaking, “Western culture” doesn’t inherently include Thanksgiving. American culture does, obviously, and I believe the Canadians have their Thanksgiving during the fall too, but the phrase ‘Western Culture’ encompasses Europe too. This was obviously written by an American. Furthermore, what about the Chinese New Year? It usually falls during January and they still observe the Gregorian year dates, if only to make interactions with Western countries easier. This was a pretty culturally biased article. Other than that, it was good though.

  3. In the Southern United States, a tradition for New Year's Day is to eat black-eyed peas. Sometimes they used to put a penny in the pot, and whoever ended up with the penny in their portion was supposed to have the luckiest year.

  4. French girls reads : "The New Year is a big deal in France, where it is known as Jour des Étrennes, and it lasts from January 1st until the 6th. They often drink warm wine—a similar beverage of varying recipe called caribou is also imbibed in French-speaking Canada during the Carnaval de Québec in February—and celebrated by eating la galette des rois, a special cake with a tiny king or bean baked inside. This has also been adopted in Louisiana." and says : WTF ?
    That's a complete melting pot of completely differents things.
    I'm too lazy to explain here.

    • French guy replying: Absolutely! The Galette des Rois ("Kings' pie") has nothing to do with the New Year. It's a christian tradition celebrating the Magi visiting Jesus when he was born. It has lost some of its religious now but is still very widespread. It's usually eaten on the first Sunday of January (but can be eaten throughout the whole month). It's more an occasion of being together (it's served as a dessert during a lunch or dinner with family/friends) than a real religious celebration today.

  5. Louisianian here: not sure how they do king cakes in Canada, but they have a baby here, not a tiny king. Carnivale/Mardi Gras should be an entirely separate post, as it is not a new year celebration but is awesome all the same.

  6. Article is filled with half-truths and inaccuracies as shown by the comments.

    Also I just polled my closest friends born after 1975 and not a single one has seen the movie with Rudolph at new years. From 1967-1194, not a one had heard of the movie before now.

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