April Holloway | Ancient Origins | December 30, 2013
Here we look at celebrations to honour the New Year in different cultures around the world.
In many countries around the world, New Year’s Day is celebrated on 1st January with fireworks and festivities the evening before. But this is not the only type of New Year’s celebration and not everyone celebrates on 1st January.
Chinese New Year and the bloodthirsty beast
One of the oldest traditions still celebrated today is Chinese New Year, which is believed to have originated around three millennia ago during the Shang Dynasty. The holiday began as a way of celebrating the new beginnings of the spring planting season, but later it became connected with myth and legend. According to one account, there was once a bloodthirsty creature called Nian—now the Chinese word for “year”—that preyed on villages every New Year. In order to frighten the hungry beast, the villagers took to decorating their homes with red trimmings, burning bamboo and making loud noises. The ruse worked, and the bright colours and lights associated with scaring off Nian eventually became integrated into the customs that are still seen today. Festivities are now celebrated with food, families, lucky money (usually in a red envelope), and many other red things for good luck. Lion and dragon dances, drums, fireworks, firecrackers, and other types of entertainment fill the streets on this day. Since Chinese New Year is still based on a lunar calendar that dates back to the second millennium BC, the holiday typically falls in late January or early February on the second new moon after the winter solstice. Each year is associated with one of 12 zodiacal animals: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog or pig.
Nowruz and the Persian New Year
The ‘Persian New Year’, otherwise called Nowruz (or Norooz), is a 13-day spring festival that reaches far back into antiquity, though many of the traditions associated with it are still celebrated in Iran and other parts of the Middle East and Asia. The festival is celebrated on or around the vernal equinox in March and is believed to have originated as part of the Zoroastrian religion. Official records of Nowruz did not appear until the 2nd century, but most historians believe its celebration dates back at least as far as the 6th century BC. Unlike many other ancient Persian festivals, Nowruz persisted as an important holiday even after Iran’s conquest by Alexander the Great in 333 BC and the rise of Islamic rule in the 7th century A.D.
Ancient observances of Nowruz focused on the rebirth that accompanied the return of spring. Traditions included feasts, exchanging presents with family members and neighbours, lighting bonfires, dyeing eggs and sprinkling water to symbolise creation. Nowruz has evolved considerably over time, but many of its ancient traditions—particularly the use of bonfires and coloured eggs—remain a part of the modern holiday, which is observed by an estimated 300 million people each year.
Sinhalese and Tamil New Year
Sinhalese New Year is celebrated by the Sri Lankan Sinhalese, while the Tamil New Year on the same day is celebrated by Sri Lankan Tamils. The Sinhalese New Year (aluth avurudda), marks the end of harvest season and is held on 13th or 14th April. There is an astrologically generated time gap between the passing year and the New Year, which is based on the passing of the sun from the Meena Rashiya (House of Pisces) to the Mesha Rashiya (House of Aries) in the celestial sphere. The astrological time difference between the New Year and the passing year is celebrated with several Buddhist rituals and customs, as well as social gatherings and festive parties. The exchange of gifts, the lighting of the oil lamp, and making rice milk are significant aspects of the Sinhalese New Year. In Assam, Bengal, Kerala, Nepal, Orissa, Punjab and Tamil Nadu, Hindu households also celebrate the New Year on 14th or 15th April.
Ancient Egyptian Wepet Renpet
Ancient Egyptian culture was closely tied to the Nile River, and it appears their New Year corresponded with its annual flood. The Egyptian New Year was predicted when Sirius—the brightest star in the night sky—first became visible after a 70-day absence, which typically occurred in mid-July just before the annual inundation of the Nile River, which helped ensure that farmlands remained fertile for the coming year. Egyptians celebrated this new beginning with a festival known as Wepet Renpet, which means “opening of the year.” The New Year was seen as a time of rebirth and rejuvenation, and it was honoured with feasts and special religious rites.
Recent discoveries at the Temple of Mut showed that during the reign of Hatshepsut, the first month of the year played host to a “Festival of Drunkenness.” This massive party was tied to the myth of Sekhmet, a war goddess who had planned to kill all of humanity until the sun god Ra tricked her into drinking herself unconscious. In honour of mankind’s salvation, the Egyptians would celebrate with music, sex, revelry and copious amounts of beer.
The Ethiopian Enqutatash
Ethiopian New Year is called Enqutatash and is celebrated on 11th or 12th September, depending on the leap year. Ethiopia uses its own ancient calendar called the Ge’ez calendar. The date of Enqutatash marks the approximate end of three months of heavy rain. Daisies blossom all over the mountains and fields change into bright yellow. It is a period when the old bless the young and the young hope for new prospects. It has also been associated traditionally with the return of the Queen of Sheba to Ethiopia following her visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem in about 980 BC. Enqutatash is a holiday shared among people of all religions and almost all cultures throughout the country. Large celebrations are held, which start from the eve by burning a Christmas tree made out of twigs in front of their houses. The actual New Year’s day starts by slaughtering of the animals, blessing the bread and Tella (a traditional brew).
The Scottish Hogmanay
Residents of Scotland mark the arrival of the New Year with particular passion in a holiday they call Hogmanay that draws on their history of Viking invasions, superstition, and ancient pagan rituals. Hogmanay’s origins date back to pagan rituals that marked the time of the winter solstice. Roman celebrations of the hedonistic winter festival of Saturnalia and Viking celebrations of Yule (the origin of the twelve days of Christmas) contributed to celebrations in Scotland around the New Year. These celebrations and other ceremonies evolved over the centuries to become the Hogmanay holiday celebrated in Scotland today. During the Middle Ages, the pre-existing pagan winter festivals were overshadowed by the feasts surrounding Christmas, and the New Year was moved to coincide with Christian holy days. Following the reformation in Scotland, however, celebration of Christmas was discouraged, and so the gift-giving and celebration that accompanied Christmas elsewhere took place at New Year, giving rise to the uniquely Scottish celebration of Hogmanay.
The various local traditions found in Scotland relating to fires also hark back to the ancient past. In the pagan winter celebrations, fire symbolised the newly resurgent sun coming back to the land, and was believed to ward off evil spirits dwelling in the darkness. Fires still play a major part in Hogmanay celebrations, with torchlight processions, bonfires and fireworks popular throughout Scotland. Another custom known as “first footing” dictates that the first person to cross a home’s threshold after midnight on New Year’s Eve will determine the homeowner’s luck for the New Year. The ideal visitor bears gifts—preferably whiskey, coal for the fire, small cakes, or a coin—and should be a man with a dark complexion. Why? The answer goes back to the 8th century, when the presumably fair-haired Vikings invaded Scotland: a blond visitor was not a good omen.
Other customs and traditions
The above-mentioned customs and traditions are just a small selection of cultural celebrations that take place around the world. But there are, of course, many more.
In Spain, it is customary to have 12 grapes at hand when the clock strikes 12 at midnight. One grape is eaten on each stroke. If all the grapes are eaten within the period of the strikes, it means good luck in the New Year.
In Japan, “forget-the-year parties” are held to bid farewell to problems and concerns of the past year and prepare for a new beginning.
In the Netherlands, the Dutch burn bonfires of Christmas trees on the street and launch fireworks.
In Greece, the traditional food served is Vassilopitta, a cake in which a coin is hidden inside; whoever finds the coin in their piece of cake will receive good luck during the coming year.
In Sweden and Norway, it is an almond hidden inside a rice pudding that brings good fortune.
In Buddhist temples around the world, gongs are struck 108 times on New Year’s Eve in an effort to expel 108 types of human weakness.