It’s the end of 2017 and as we celebrate another lap of the earth’s journey around the sun we also plan to start new chapters, make resolutions, and, of course, throw kick-ass parties. For the past 4000 years the New Year, though celebrated at various different points in the calendar, has been a constant cause of soul-searching, occasion for raucous behavior, and source of superstition.
January 1st became known as the New Year in 45 BC. Julius Caesar reformed the Roman calendar in an effort to prevent abuses of the electoral system. From the seventh century BC onwards, the Romans had tried to follow the lunar calendar. The pontifices, an official college of Roman priests, were responsible for overseeing the calendar and would regularly add days to the year in order extend political terms and try and rig the outcome of elections. To counteract this Caesar sought the advice of the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes, who recommended that the Romans shift to the solar calendar (which just so happened to be the Egyptian way). In order to bring this about, Caesar added sixty-seven days to 45 BC so that 46 BC began in January rather than March. Realizing that the length of the year was approximately 365.25 days he also instituted the practice of adding an additional day to February every fourth year.
Julius Caesar set the precedent for celebrating in January, but New Year festivals go all the way back to the Ancient Near East. In the third millennium BCE, the Sumerians (southern Mesopotamians) celebrated the celebration of the harvest feast of Akitu on the first days of the Babylonian calendar in March/April. During the twelve-day long festival the creation epic would be recited, bawdy hymns to the goddess of fertility would be sung, and the king would undertake a mini-pilgrimage and series of religious rituals designed to confirm his power or install a new king. At one point in the festivities the monarch would be publicly humiliated and struck across the face.
Some New Year’s Celebrations were especially debauched. The Feast of the Fools, which has its roots in medieval France and the circumcision of Jesus seven days after his birth, celebrated the temporary reversal of the social order. On this day on January 1st people (including clerics) would mock the upper classes, the pope, and others in positions of power. According to reputation, the feast involved cross-dressing, gambling, drinking and irritated ecclesiastical authorities so much that, by the sixteenth century, it was stamped out. Even if, as historian Max Harris has argued in his book Sacred Folly, the festival has been wildly misunderstood, there were many laypeople were engaged in all kinds of debauchery and “pagan” festivities. In Poland the celebration of the feast of St. Sylvester turned New Year’s into something much more akin to a modern Halloween: young boys would dress up as devils and terrorize the neighborhood with pranks.
Of course, New Year’s is accompanied by some very precise superstitions oriented around bringing good luck. The state in which one finds oneself at the turn of midnight is thought to be predictive of the tenor of one’s year. Kissing someone at midnight, for example, is not just about celebrating with bae, it is intended to preserve that relationship for the next twelve months. More practically, one can ensure prosperity and financial success in the coming year by stocking up one’s cupboards, refrigerator, and larder; filling one’s wallet with cash; paying off outstanding bills and debts (think credit cards rather than the mortgage); doing a small amount of symbolic work on New Year’s Day; and eating black eyed peas. In Ireland starting the year with a spotless house augured well for the coming year.
Most of these superstitions are focused on the idea of the house and household, which is why the first person to step foot into your residence after midnight influences the shape of the year to come. Ideally, the “first footer” or “lucky bird” should bring small gifts (tradition prescribes a lump of coal, silver coin, bread, something green, and a small amount of salt). The first footer is, in paramount conditions, a tall attractive man with dark hair. Redheads and blondes, cross-eyed people, flat-footed individuals and those who have eyebrows that meet in the middle bring bad luck. There was some diversity of opinion from country to country about whether or not one wanted a married first footer or a single one, but there seems to have been a near universal consensus that female first footers should be shooed away, with the use of firearms if necessary. Some villages in Yorkshire, England, would hire a “lucky” young man on retainer in order to ensure good luck for the year.
Today most people use the New Year as an opportunity to make resolutions. The practice of starting afresh goes back to the Babylonians; who promised to return borrowed objects and pay off their debts. Romans were also fond of using the beginning of January as an opportunity to offer sacrifices to the gods and make promises for the coming year. But modern resolution practices have their immediate roots in eighteenth century Covenant Renewal Services. In an effort to counteract the debauched revelries of his time, John Wesley held “celebrations” that including scripture readings and hymn singing. African-American evangelical churches often included prayers and resolutions as part of their services. It is only recently that New Year’s resolutions have become a secular opportunity for self-improvement. But, after approximately four millennia of practice, we aren’t getting better at this: while 45% of Americans make resolutions, only 8% are successful in keeping them. So, if your New Year’s celebrations is more feast of fools than new chapter, you can feel good in the knowledge that you’re not alone.