The earliest recorded festivities date back some 4,000 years to ancient Babylon. For the Babylonians, the start of a new year was heralded by the first new moon following the vernal equinox—the day in late March with an equal amount of sunlight and darkness. They marked the occasion with Akitu which was a massive religious festival. For 11 days they did a different ritual each day.
In Egypt, the year began with the annual flooding of the Nile, which coincided with the rising of the star Sirius.
The first day of the Chinese New Year occurred with the second new moon after the winter solstice.
Caesar instituted January 1 as the first day of the year, partly to honor the month’s namesake: Janus, the Roman god of beginnings. Janus’s two faces allowed him to look back into the past and forward into the future. Romans celebrated by offering sacrifices to Janus, exchanging gifts with one another, decorating their homes with laurel branches, and attending raucous parties.
In many countries, New Year’s celebrations begin on the evening of December 31—New Year’s Eve—and continue into the early hours of January 1.
Some traditional dishes for this celebration are:
- Legumes, which are thought to resemble coins and herald future financial success – lentils in Italy and black-eyed peas in the southern United States;
- Pigs represent progress and prosperity in some cultures – Cuba, Austria, Hungary, Portugal and other countries;
- Ring-shaped cakes and pastries, a sign that the year has come full circle – Netherlands, Mexico, Greece and elsewhere;
- Rice pudding with an almond hidden inside – Sweden and Norway;
The practice of making resolutions for the New Year is thought to have first caught on among the ancient Babylonians, who made promises to earn the favor of the gods and start the year off on the right foot.
In the United States, the most iconic New Year’s tradition is the dropping of a giant ball in New York City’s Times Square at the stroke of midnight.
Since 1907, over time, the ball itself has ballooned from a 700-pound iron-and-wood orb to a brightly patterned sphere 12 feet in diameter and weighing in at nearly 12,000 pounds.