Tonight is the last night of the old year and will be observed as the oldest of all holiday celebrations, first celebrated in Babylon about 4,000 years ago.
At that time, however, the New Year began after the vernal equinox which was the first day of spring. It seems more logical to begin a new year in spring which is generally thought of as the season of rebirth. January 1st, on the other hand, has no particular significance other than the fact that in 153 BC the Romans decided that the New Year should begin on that date. The date, however, was not firmly established until around 46 BC when Caesar ordered the observance of the Julian calendar which would then be co-ordinated with the sun.
So now, around the world, we celebrate New Year’s Eve on December 31st with parties, festivities, and the playing of “Auld Lang Syne” at midnight. But did you know that December 31st is also important for many other reasons?
For instance, it was on this date in history in 1687 that the first shipload of Huguenots (French Protestants) left France for South Africa. And in 1776 on this date Rhode Island established wage and price controls to curb inflation. Carpenters were paid a limit of 70 cents a day and tailors 42 cents. In 1841 on this date Alabama became the first State to licence dental surgeons. And on December 31st in 1857 Queen Victoria decided to make Ottawa the new capital of Canada.
On December 31st, 1902, the Boers and the British army signed a peace treaty which officially ended the Boer War, and in 1911 Marie Curie received her second Nobel Prize.
Another interesting piece of trivia is that on this date in 1921, the last of San Francisco’s fire horses were retired! In 1923, the BBC in London started using the chimes of Big Ben as their call identification, and in 1935 on December 31st Charles Darrow patented the game Monopoly.
On New Year’s Eve in 1946 President Truman officially proclaimed the end of World War II, and on this date in 1961 the Beach Boys performed for the first time. On this same date in 1970, Paul McCartney filed a lawsuit to officially dissolve The Beatles.
I also found that a number of famous people, some dead and some still living, celebrated their birthdays on this date. In 1720, for instance, Bonnie Prince Charles Edward Stuart was born and on the same date in 1869 French impressionist painter, Henri Matisse, was born. It seems that many actors were also born on New Year’s Eve, including Jason Robards, senior, in 1892, Pola Negri in 1894, Sarah Miles in 1941, Ben Kingsley in 1943, Val Kilmer in 1959 and Bebe Neuwirth (the actress who played Lilith on Cheers) in 1959.
Those Babylonian New Year celebrations apparently lasted for eleven days with each day having its particular role to play in the festivities. Our New Year’s Eve celebrations, known as Hogmanay in Scotland, Evacuation Day (1946) in Lebanon, Grand Purification day in Japan and the day when the Grand Imperial Ball is held in Austria, possibly all pale in comparison with the celebrations once held in Babylon.
The significance of a baby to herald in a New Year began in ancient Greece around 600 BC. The baby signified the annual rebirth of their god Dionysus, god of wine and the spirit of fertility. The image of a baby was continued by the Romans but was denounced by early Christians as a pagan practice. The tradition was brought to North America by the Germans who had used this image since the fourteenth century.
The shape of a ring is considered to be good luck (symbolizing coming full circle and completing the year) and in that context the Dutch believe that eating donuts on New Year’s Eve will bring good fortune for the coming year. (That sounds good to me!) Other popular good-luck foods are black-eyed peas with ham and cabbage consumed by many cultures on New Year’s Day. Cabbage leaves are supposedly a sign of prosperity, and rice eaten on New Year’s Day is also considered by some to be lucky.