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It's Another New Year…but for what reason?

There are as many ways to celebrate the New Year as there are days in the calendar. Regardless of when and where it is observed, the holiday is rich in history and traditions the world over. The common themes of renewal, rebirth, and hope for health, wealth, and prosperity evident in past celebrations are still alive and well in today’s festivities.

The time of year when pagans rang out the old and rang in the new varied considerably. Early Romans welcomed the new year in March — the time of the spring equinox — as did the ancient Babylonians.

The flooding of the Nile, which usually occurred in June, marked the beginning of the new year for ancient Egyptians, who would sing, dance, and feast for a month to welcome the waters that would nourish the crops and bring life to the otherwise dry desert.

Thousands of years ago, the people of Israel observed their first New Year in autumn. Still celebrated in the fall, Rosh Hashanah, reckoned by the lunar calendar, begins 10 days of penitence and prayer that end with Yom Kippur, the most solemn of religious days in the Jewish calendar. The Chinese New Year usually occurs in late January or February, also a function of the lunar calendar.

We owe the secular custom of celebrating New Year’s Day on January 1 to Julius Caesar, who, as emperor in the first century B.C., devised the Julian calendar.

The month of January itself was named in honor of Janus, the two-faced Roman god who looked backward to the old year and forward to the new. It became customary for Romans to hold a festival each year in his honor and to exchange gifts and wishes of good luck.

Under Constantine, the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity, New Year’s evolved into a day of fasting rather than feasting. Early Christians believed the day was best spent repenting the wrongdoings of the previous year and making resolutions to lead better lives in the coming year. Today the world’s 1 billion Roman Catholics regard January 1 as a holy day honoring Mary, the Mother of God.

In the formative years of this country, the Puritans frowned on any kind of New Year observance. They associated it with paganism, even refusing to utter the word January, calling it “the first month” instead.