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fireworks, midnight and new years resolutions – where did they come from?

Every year we celebrate the introduction of the New Year without understanding precisely why. Cities all around the world spend millions of dollars on extravagant firework displays and thousands of New Years parties are organized amongst friends. Movies are themed around New Years – the night hailed by all as the biggest night of the year.

But when did this tradition start? And why? Considering New Years celebrations have been a regular part of my life for so long I think it is pretty damn important to find out. (Plus, after a little research I found out that it’s quite an interesting story….)

Around 4000 years ago in Babylon, New Years celebrations were quite the contested activity. This is because for centuries, there wasn’t a universally agreed upon calendar. As a result, the new year occurred on a variety of days, including March 23rd and even Christmas Day when Christians pushed for true recognition of their saint.

Understandably this was quite frustrating for citizens as each new ruler imposed his own decision upon society and the date was frequently changed. That is, until Julius Caesar created the Julian Calendar in 46BC which deemed January 1st as the first day of the year, every year. But, as a result of the persistent tampering of his forebears, he had to allow the last year before the start of the Julian Calendar to drag on for 445 days. Crazy, huh!

Now, when it comes to resolutions, the story gets even more interesting. After finally deciding on January 1st, the Romans dedicated the day to their God of beginnings and guardian of entrances who was named Janus. Every image and carving found of Janus depicts a man with two faces. One looks forward and one looks back. The night before January 1st, the Romans pictured Janus looking back over the old year as well as forward into the new one.

Over the many thousands of years from then until now there have been many different kinds of resolutions made when the clock strikes twelve and ticks over into the new year. While the Romans made promises to Janus, ancient Babylonians promised their Gods that they would return farm equipment and pay off debts, Spaniards ate twelve grapes to symbolize twelve months of happiness, and the Dutch burned old Christmas trees to symbolize purging of the old and welcoming of the new.

Many traditions from long ago seem ridiculous to us now but the foundations of our current New Years celebrations are built upon them. Just like the Dutch burned Christmas trees to symbolize new growth, we light fireworks. Christians today still reflect on the previous year and resolve to be better in the year to come and magazines and newspapers regularly encourage readers to do the same. Whether we make a goal or a promise, New Years Eve is a time when the whole of society reflects as one just as we have been doing for thousands of years.

It is truly astounding.

Photo credit: bayasaa on flickr

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