from the Curator's Office:
Roman coin depicting Janus.
(01/07) Like anybody else, I make New Year,s resolutions:
Eat less, exercise more, be nicer to small, furry animals, etc.
And like everybody, I start breaking them about 23 hours into
the New Year.
Why do we put ourselves through this? Why do we
set ourselves up for failure just a few days after celebrating
a, spanking, brand-new 365 days? Well, maybe we should blame the
ancient Babylonians. They were perhaps the first people to celebrate
the new year starting about 4,000 years ago. Though they had no
written calendar, they set the holiday around March 23rd. This
is actually a fairly logical place to mark a new year. After all,
it is the spring. It's the time to plant new crops and nature
starts to show signs of life after the long winter.
Today our New Year's Eve parties are probably only
tiny, pale reflections of the Babylonian festivals which lasted
an exhausting eleven days. Though modern celebrants can blame
the Babylonians for inventing the New Year's hangover, we need
to jump forward another millennium or so to find the first people
we know of that made resolutions: The Romans.
The Romans had originally celebrated the New Year
in March, just like the Babylonians, but as each new emperor came
along and fooled with the calendar ("Gee, let's add a month with
my name to the year to celebrate the wonderfulness of me!") it
bore little resemblance to the original seasons. Finally, in 154
BC, the Roman senate got tired of all the fiddling and declared
January 1st to be the New Year. It was at this same time that
the Roman god Janus - the god of doorways - got associated with
the changing of the year. Janus was unique among the Roman gods
in that he had one face on the front of his head and one on the
back. The Romans imagined him looking forward into the future
and backward into the past. The New Year celebrations back then
served as a sort of Christmas including the exchange of gifts.
One popular gift was coins, often inscribed with Janus' likeness.
Janus also quickly became associated with the idea of New Year's
During the Middle Ages, New Year's day switched
around a bit more. They tried moving it to Christmas and then
back to March (for the Annunciation Feast). In the sixteenth century,
however, Pope Gregory XIII revised our calendar (which is why
we call our calendar the Gregorian Calendar) for a final time
and put New Years day back to January 1st and, for western cultures,
it has been there ever since.
Just a little side note, April Fool's Day (April
1st) probably came from the last day of the New Year's spring
festival before Gregory switched it back to January 1st. People
who continued to celebrate the New Year in the spring therefore
were considered, well, fools…
New Year's Celebrations
head of a dragon used in the traditional Dragon Dance
(This file is licensed under Creative Commons ShareAlike
1.0 License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/sa/1.0/)
Not that every culture celebrates the new year on
January 1st. The Chinese New Year occurs in late January or early
February based on two full moons after the winter solstice (with
some occasional exceptions). The Chinese festival actually outdoes
the ancient Babylonians by lasting 15 days and is probably the
most important holiday on the Chinese calendar. The celebrations
include the use of firecrackers to frighten away evil spirits
(though, for safety reasons these have been outlawed in many places
in recent years - no doubt to the relief of harried evil spirits)
and the traditional dragon dance.
The dragon dance is perhaps one of the most colorful
New Year's traditions of any culture. The Chinese Dragon costume
used in the dance is long (perhaps 30 feet), snake-like and is
carried in the air on poles by a line of human operators. This
allows them to weave and bob the dragon's body in complex patterns
as they march. The head of the dragon is often rigged to belch
smoke or make other animated movements. A truly astounding show
is a double-dragon dance in which two groups work their dragons
together to intertwine the bodies.
The Islamic New Year starts on the first day of
Muharram. Since the Muslim calendar is based on 12 lunar months
which add up to only 354 days, the day of the New Year shifts
eleven days earlier each year. This means that in 2008 we will
actually see two Muslim New Years in one Gregorian calender year.
The Sri Lankans celebrate their national New Year
in April. Unlike most celebrations that start at midnight, the
hour the year begins in this case is determined by astrologers.
They also determine the end of the old year. Sometimes the astrologers
fail to make these two meet up perfectly and there are a few hours
in between which are neither the old year or the new year. This
time is called the "nona gathe" (neutral period). During this
period people are instructed to engage in nothing but religious
The Scotts, while they use the Gregorian Calendar
and celebrate on January 1st with most of the western world, have
some unusual New Years customs. One of the most interesting is
the idea of "first footers." A first footer is the first person
who steps into your house in the new year. Traditionally the best
"first footers" are considered tall, black-haired men. They bring
good luck to your household for the next twelve months. Why? Apparently
this part of the custom dates back to the time of the Vikings.
Vikings were often short and fair-haired. Since having a Viking
enter your home to do some looting and plundering was pretty much
bad luck - anytime of the year - and a tradition developed favoring
First footers are supposed to bring a gift and can
be considered unlucky if they don't. Other people can be unlucky
based only who they are. In fact, there is quite a list of people
you traditionally don't want stepping into your house on New Year's
morning: Red-haired people, doctors, ministers, thieves, grave-diggers,
flat-footed people and, worst of all, someone whose eyebrows meet
in the middle of their forehead. Though many of these traditions
have faded in recent years, it occurs to me that if, in the past,
you had happened to be a red-haired minister with flat-feet that
dug graves for your church cemetery part-time and sported a uni-brow,
you probably shouldn't have even bothered to get out of bed on
Well, I digress from my original topic, undoubtably
to avoid my New Year's resolutions this year. Perhaps what I need
is a new approach. It seems to me that since I can never keep
my resolutions, perhaps some reverse psychology would help me
out. In that spirit, here are my top ten resolutions for this
1) Gain weight - Put on 20 pounds by the
end of March.
2) Watch more TV - I don't want to miss an
espisode of any of those reality TV shows on this spring.
3) Get less exercise - I should couch potato
at least an hour and a half three times a week - exception, I
can work out my thumb on the TV remote control.
4) Do less Reading - I'll just wait for the
5) Procrastinate - Never do today what you
can put off until tomorrow.
6) Junk up the garage - Who cares if we can't
fit the cars inside?
7) Avoid garden work - Weeds should have
a chance to live, too.
8) Take up a new vice - Perhaps chewing tobacco
would be fun.
9) Spend less time with my kids - They need
more hours to watch the cartoon network anyway.
10) Learn to dance - Start with the Macarena.
Copyright Lee Krystek 2007.
All Rights Reserved.