New Year’s Day in the United States of America has been celebrated for over two hundred years, but the history of New Year’s Day goes back thousands of years. In 2000 B.C., Mesopotamians celebrated the vernal equinox as the beginning of a new year. This practice continued through the Middle Ages, with many countries of the world celebrating the New Year on March 20th. However, in 1752, the British and their colonists in America adopted the Gregorian calendar, and from this time on, Americans have celebrated New Year’s Day on January 1st.
What is the Vernal Equinox?
Vernal means “Spring”, and equinox means “equal night”. On the vernal equinox, March 20th, the sun is located above the equator and day and night are about equal length. For those living in the Northern Hemisphere, March 20th marks the beginning of Spring. After this day, there is an increasing amount of sunlight every day until the beginning of Summer, June 21. For ancient people, celebrating the vernal equinox as the New Year was very logical. People were moving away from darkness into the light. Agrarian people rely on the power of the sun in growing crops. For the ancients, the vernal equinox was a time to celebrate birth, sunlight, and fertility. Romans would exchange gifts and make promises they would try to fulfill in the new year.
Why Do We Celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1st and not March 20th?
The United States of America and most Western countries trace much of their cultural heritage to the Roman Republic and to Judeo-Christian beliefs and practices. Before Julius Caesar, Romans celebrated March 1st as the New Year because March is the first month in the Roman calendar. Romans had a festival to honor their god, Mars (God of War). In 45 B.C., Julius Caesar reformed the Roman calendar and changed the celebration of the New Year to January 1st, in honor of Janus, the Roman god who January is named after. The god Janus was always shown with two faces, one looking to the past and one looking ahead. On this day, the Romans exchanged gifts and promised to be better with each other in the new year. Romans also celebrated this day by throwing parties food, drink, and dancing.
The first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great (272 – 337), kept the Julian Calendar, but turned New Year’s Day into a day of prayer and fasting. Christians were encouraged to use the day as a beginning to live better lives. From the seventh century on, January 1st was celebrated by Christians in the Roman Calendar as a day honoring The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. The Christian Church attempted to change the parties of the Roman times into a time of prayer and reflection.
New Year’s Parties Abolished
In 567 at the Council of Tours, Christians abolished the celebrations of January 1 because they considered them pagan. Instead, they celebrated the new year on December 25th , the day the Church chose to honor the birth of Jesus. However, there weren’t mass celebrations of the new year, as knowledge of the exact date was not widespread.
Gregorian Calendar: January 1st Restored
In 1582, much of the Western world reformed the Julian Calendar because of its inaccuracies and adopted the Gregorian Calendar. Named after Pope Gregory III, the calendar restored January 1st as the New Year Day. Great Britain kept the Julian calendar until 1752, and it was at this time that the English colonists started celebrating January 1st as New Year’s Day.
How do Americans Celebrate New Year’s Day?
Americans celebrate New Year’s Day in a variety of ways. On New Year’s Eve, there are gatherings of friends and family the evening before to remember the year past and to look forward to the new year. There is revelry and merry making that takes place in private and public places. Some Americans make New Year’s resolutions, with promises of working harder, losing weight, or enrolling in a class. Other Americans carry on the religious traditions of New Year’s Day, as well. Anglicans and Lutherans mark the day as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, remembering the Christian belief that Christ was circumcised 8 days after birth. Roman Catholics celebrate this day remembering Mary as the mother of Jesus.
1. When did Mesopotamians celebrate the new year?
2. What does the Vernal Equinox mean for those living in the Northern Hemisphere?
3. Who changed the celebration of the new year to January 1st in 45 B.C.?
4. Why was the date of the new year changed?
5. How did the Romans celebrate the new year?
6. How did Constantine the Great change the celebrating of the new year?
7. From the seventh century on, who did Christians using the Roman Calendar give honor to?
8. Throughout the first eight centuries, why did most people in the world not celebrate the new year?
9. When was the Gregorian Calendar adopted by most of the Western world?
10. How do people of various Christian faiths celebrate the new year religiously?
John De Gree
John De Gree writes the current events with a look at the history of each topic. Articles are written for the young person, aged 10-18, and Mr. De Gree carefully writes so that all readers can understand the event. The perspective the current events are written in is Judeo-Christian.
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