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Origins of Common New Year Traditions

We’ve come to the end of another year. This means that many of us will be ringing in the New Year at the end of the week. But where did some of our New Year traditions come from? Here are the origins of a few of our traditions:

Why Westerners Celebrate on January 1

Prior to the Middle Ages and the Rennaissance, most Westerners celebrated the New Year at the time of the vernal equinox. This was an ideal time to celebrate the New Year, since it was a time of rebirth. In 153 B.C., the Romans attempted to adopt January 1 as the date of the New Year, but widespread acceptance was slow in coming, even though Rome made use of the date. Without significant agricultural events happening at January 1, the agrarian society dominating the time was reluctant to adopt January 1.

Various attempts to adopt January 1 as the New Year proceeded without much success until the reforms instituted by the Gregorian Calendar in 1582. Catholic countries began adopting this calendar almost immediately, but it wasn’t until the 1700s that Protestant Western countries adopted the Gregorian calendar. By 1924, Eastern Orthodox countries had adopted the Gregorian Calendar and Asian countries had adopted the calendar in order to conform with Western norms, even though there are cultural celebrations that follow ancient traditions in many other countries.

New Year’s Resolutions

With the New Year being a time of rebirth and a time of turning over a new leaf, it makes sense to make promises to oneself to improve one’s life. This is one of the reasons that we make New Year’s resolutions. Ancient Babylonians made resolutions at the outset of the New Year — the most popular being to return farm equipment that had been borrowed. For Christians, reflections on Jonathan Edwards can also provide insights into resolutions and making them.

Auld Lang Syne

This Scots poem, written by Robert Burns, is traditionally sung at the end of New Year’s gatherings in Scotland. The practice of singing this song, whose title can be translated as “long, long ago” or “old times gone,” has been adopted throughout the English-speaking world as a New Year’s tradition.

Black-Eyed Peas

If you are in the Southern United States, you might be served black-eyed peas just after midnight or at some point during New Year’s Day. Some believe that the tradition started during the Civil War. Sherman’s troops ignored black-eyed peas as they stole or destroyed crops, because these legumes were considered staples of slaves and livestock. Confederate troops were able to take advantage of their nourishment when other food was scarce.

A whole New Year’s menu has now evolved around black-eyed peas, and what they are served with. For instance, black-eyed peas served with stewed tomatoes indicates health and wealth, and when served with collard greens represent money.

Celebrating the New Year

New Year’s celebrations have evolved in many places, and many traditions are observed. From wearing polka dots (Philippines) to eating grapes quickly at midnight (Spain) to parading with fireballs (Scotland), there are a number of interesting traditions. You can take your pick.

Have a Happy New Year!

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