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New Year's Celebrations - Around the World Print E-mail
Ceri Balston   
Monday, 19 December 2005


I bet you're thinking to yourself "where did 2005 go?!" Yep, every year seems to fly past faster than the last and now you're suddenly busy working out where and how you'll usher in 2006. Now's a good a time as any to look around the world and back into history to see how mankind has celebrated and continues to celebrate the most popular festival in the calendar.

The first recorded history of man celebrating the start of a new year is around 4000 years ago with the ancient Babylonian civilisation. Their celebrations lasted for eleven days beginning on the first new moon of the spring equinox. Intriguingly the Babylonians also started the tradition of making New Year's resolutions. Today we may declare that we're going to start spinning classes or quit smoking, but in their day the most popular resolution was to promise to return borrowed farm equipment. I guess a modern day equivalent would be to return borrowed books and CD's to our family and friends, sounds a lot easier to keep than traipsing to the gym on a regular basis!

In many other cultures throughout the world the New Year also coincided with the beginning of spring, it was only with the introduction of the Julian calendar in 45BC (which later became the Gregorian calendar that we use today) that January 1st became the first day of the New Year. The month of January is named after Janus, the two headed Roman god of beginning, who looks both back into the past and forward into the future and was thus considered to be a time when one could look back and evaluate the year past and look ahead to the New Year with hope and determination.

In Scotland the New Year's festival is called Hogmanay and is also closely associated with Robert Burns' popular song "Auld Lang Syne" (I wonder how many people know the words to that one!). No one is exactly sure of the meaning of the word Hogmanay, some etymological explanations suggest that it means "youth of morning" or "holy month"; my favourite however is the suggestion that it is a corruption of one of the most popular New Year activities - "hug me now!"

There are many traditions and customs associated with Hogmanay but perhaps the most interesting and widespread is 'first-footing'. This starts straight after midnight and involves a person, bearing a gift such a lump of coal, short bread or silverware, crossing a neighbour's threshold. This first-foot is supposed to set the luck for the household for the rest of the year and so it is important that a suitable person is chosen for the task. Apparently tall and dark-haired men are preferred and I guess it would be even better if he's ruggedly good-looking, drives a fast car and oh, say single...?

Perhaps one of the most colourful and well known New Year celebrations is the Chinese. This celebration starts the day after the second new moon after the winter solstice, and usually falls between late January and early Feb.

There are a number of well known traditions associated with this festival which lasts for fifteen days. The use of fireworks and crackers, comes from the fear of the mythical man eating reptile Nian, the loud noises are used to scare it off. Red envelopes, containing money (usually auspicious amounts associated with lucky numbers), are given to children. On the fifteenth day the festivities end with the Lantern Festival.

Closer to home the Swazi people celebrate New Year with Incwala or 'Festival of the First Fruits', this is one of the most important ceremonies in their calendar. Held in late December early January, it is believed to renew the strength of the King and the Swazi nation for the coming year. On the new moon water is gathered from the ocean and branches from the lusekwane tree are taken to the King's residence. From the full moon six days of celebrations take place.

In Brazil, on the world famous Ipanema beach (amongst other places along the coast) another African related celebration takes place. On New Year's Day gifts are given to the Yemanjá, the goddess of the sea, in the hope that she will bless the following year's catch. This is a tradition that dates back to the arrival of Nigerian slaves. Boats are filled with white flowers, images of the deity and put to sea, while gifts including food, cosmetics, bottles of cider and champagne are arranged in the sand amongst lighted candles.

Whatever you get up to this New Year I hope you have fun and that 2006 is blessed for you.

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