Happy New Year! (And that’s no April Fools): Remembering Ancient Celebrations

Posted by on 03.30.08 | No Comments
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Spring is here near Telluride—the San Miguel River is no longer ice-locked. The first purple and yellow flowers are pushing their way through the snow. Soft gray pussy willows line the roads. And the cottonwood trees are starting to bud. It’s a time of beginnings. Happy New Year!

Though by modern standards the New Year is already three months old, historically, people celebrated the New Year in late March around the vernal equinox. According to Charles Panati in Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, the earliest recorded New Year celebration took place in Iraq—what was then Babylon, capital of Babylonia.

And what a celebration it was! Eleven days of feasting, performance and ritual. He explains, “Initiating events, a high priest, rising two hours before dawn, washed in the sacred water of the Euphrates, then offered a hymn to the regions chief god of agriculture, Marduk, praying for a bountiful new cycle of crops. The rump of a beheaded ram was rubbed against the temple walls to absorb any contagion that might infest the sacred edifice, and, by implication, the next year’s harvest.” The ceremony was known as kuppuru, a word that was also claimed by the Hebrews in their festival of atonement, Yom Kippur. For the duration of the festival, there were parades, feasts and ceremonies that focused on seed sowing and crop growing.

The Iroquois Indians also celebrated New Years based on the crop cycle—only they had their festivities when the corn crop ripened. To signify the destruction of the old and the welcoming of the new, they would have a giant bonfire and feed it with all their old clothes, wooden utensils and unused corn. This enabled them to start their New Year completely fresh.

Like the Babylonians and the Iroquois, most cultures around the world tied their New Year’s celebrations to crops. So how did it happen that New Years came to be celebrated in January—an unlikely month for anything to happen with crops? Politics. The confusion comes from the Romans. They, too, had an ancient calendar that celebrated the New Year on March 25. But emperors and other high-ranking politicians fiddled with the number of days in a month or in a year to extend their terms in office. As a result, by 153 BC, the calendar days were completely off of the astrological markers that corresponded with the months.

To resynchronize the months to the stars, the Roman senate declared the start of the New Year as January 1, hoping to clarify the public record. Though politicians still tampered with the days, the date for the Roman New Year stuck, and as Christianity spread, so did the new date.

Commoners were not so quick to embrace the new New Year, however, and throughout the Middle Ages, the English and French continued to celebrate the New Year in spring. In France, until the mid-16th century, New Year’s Day was observed on March 25 and celebrated for a week, culminating in an evening of dinners and parties on April 1. But in 1564, King Charles declared that the Frenchman should follow the Gregorian calendar—now many times revised—and celebrate New Years Day on January 1.

Some Frenchmen resisted, others simply forgot. So for years following the king’s proclamation, the folk kept celebrating New Years with parties and gifts on April 1. As Panati explains, “Jokers ridiculed these conservatives’ steadfast attachment to the old New Year’s date by sending foolish gifts and invitations to nonexistent parties.

The butt of an April Fool’s joke was known as a poisson d’Avril, or “April fish” (because at that time of year the sun was leaving the zodiacal sign of Pisces, the fish.)” Ultimately France did grow accustomed to the January 1 date for New Years, but they grew attached, too, to a day of fooling and made it a holiday in its own right. Several hundred years later the custom came to England and was passed on ultimately to the United States.

So this April 1, why not wish someone a Happy New Year? When they give you a funny look, throw in the clincher—“April Fools!”

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