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  • 12/31/2005

The History of the New Year


The Date evolution

In the fairly long history of humanity the celebration of New Year is found to have a pre-historic root. Since the era of the most ancient civilization a number of dates have been marked as the beginning of a new year by different people from different parts of the world.


The diversity is due to the difference in their ethnic and cultural background. Today the New Year is celebrated all over the world on January 1. But this was not the case a few hundred years back. The wide spread acceptance of January 1 as the New Year is confined only within the past four hundred years.


The Change over

It was the Romans who first used January 1 as the beginning of the year in 153 B.C. Prior to that March 25, the date of the vernal equinox, was celebrated as their New Year"s Day. And this was considered to be the beginning of New Year by most Christian European countries during the early medieval era.The delayed acceptance of the changed date might be due to some of its inherent difficulties. The date was unusual. For, unlike the customs prevalent till then, no agricultural or seasonal significance was attached to it. Instead, it was just a civil date, the day after the elections when the consuls would assume their new positions in the Roman empire. But the bigger problem the changed date posed, was difficulties in the calculation of the year.

As the Romans moved their New Year"s Day backward almost three months to January 1, there are irregularities in today"s  calendar. The months of September, October, November and December, originally mean, the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth month respectively. Later, many of the Roman emperors had given new names to these months. September received names as "Germanucus", "Antonius" and "Tacitus" under each of these emperors" regime. Thus November also earned the varying names of "Domitianus", "Faustinus" and "Romanus". The inconveniences led Julius Caesar to institute a new calendar. It was devised by the Greek astronomer ,Sosigenes of Alexandria from the unrivaled Egyptian solar calendar.

 Caesar wanted to change the date of the New Year from January 1 to a more logical date - to one of the solstices or equinoxes. However, it happened that January 1 of 45 B.C. was the date of a new moon. It would have been bad luck, or so regarded by the population, to change it.For his calendar reform, the Senate rewarded him by having the month of his birth, Quintilis, renamed "July" in his honor. Caesar"s grandnephew, the Emperor Augustus, had a similar honor bestowed on him when he corrected a mistake which had crept into the calculation of the leap year. Till then it had been observed every three years, instead of every four. He abolished all leap years between 8 B.C. and A.D. 8. Thus he set the calendar straight and earned for himself the renaming of Sextilis as "August". 

This calendar did not witness significant reforms till 1582, when Pope Gregory XII incorporated our present method of calculation and dividing the year. It was the Pope who reinstituted the practice of observing New Year"s Day on January 1, regardless of the pre-Christian associations with that date.

The Gregorian reforms also canceled ten days from October; Thursday, October 4, 1582, was followed by Friday, October 15, 1582. The old discrepancy was provided for by making only those century dates leap years that were that were divisible by 400. Thus although the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not leap years, the 2000 is.


Global Adoption :

Catholic countries adopted it soon. Yet it took some time for the Protestants to follow suit. Finally Germany did adopt it in 1700, Great Britain in 1752, and Sweden in 1753. It was then necessary to drop 11 days from the calendar because 1700 had been a leap year. The Oriental countries through the influence of religious groups such as the Hindus, Taoists, Buddhists, considered the new Calendar as the Christian Calendar, but also adopted it as their official one. Japan welcomed it in 1873 and China in 1912.The Eastern Orthodox adopted it even later, in 1924 and 1927, Russia took it twice - first in 1918 and after trying out its own calendars, again 1n 1924.


Gift Tradition at New Year

The New Year gift-giving tradition has a pre-historic root. Despite the "Christmas presents" culture, "gift giving" at New Year is still practiced in many parts of Europe, including France, Switzerland, Russia and Greece.

 In Europe it was prevalent even before Christ was born. Today in USA ,It is  more used to  gift-giving at  Christmas, rather than the New Year"s Day. Historically this owes its origin to the old customs of the German and Dutch settlers.  The English and French dominated states though continued with the  tradition of gift-giving on the New Year"s Day for a long while. However, the combined German and Dutch influences, in time, caused this old tradition to be wiped out giving way to the present custom across America. Long before the world came to accept January 1 as the secular New Year different people from different parts of the world would have different New Year timings. Yet there were some broad areas of convergence in their diverging customs.  And gifts on this occasion is among them as are feast, and community revelry. The idea behind all this was, probably, to greet each other with something auspicious on the wake of the new year.

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