It seems to me that somewhere buried deep in the basic character, the temperament, the makeup, of us humans is the need for periodic renewal in our lives – you know, somehow getting rid of the old and bringing in the new. It’s something that has been going on for thousands of years of recorded history. The specifics of the celebration, that is the timing and the festivities, have varied through the millennia and continue to differ world-wide even today, but the objectives haven’t changed much. Here are a few examples.
Some 4000 years ago the Babylonians of ancient Mesopotamia would honor the rebirth of the natural world with a multi-day festival following the solar/lunar combination of first new moon after the vernal equinox in late March. (The vernal equinox is when the sun is exactly above the equator, the lengths of day and night are equal, and spring “officially” begins in the northern hemisphere.) This early New Year’s celebration featured parading gods around the city as well as rites performed to signify victory over the forces of chaos. The Babylonians believed that by their carrying out these ceremonies the world was symbolically purified and regenerated by the gods in preparation for the new year and the return of spring.
Sound dated? Not really.
Guess what. These days billions of people in China, Indonesia, and Vietnam celebrate what is known as the 15 day Spring Festival (or Lunar New Year). You see, the New Year’s first day, according to the Chinese lunar calendar, always falls on the new moon between Jan. 21 and Feb. 20, and designates the end of the most frigid part of winter, which means people can anticipate the start of spring.
On the other hand, the beginning of the Persian New Year, having been continually celebrated for about 4,000 years and is thus one of history’s most ancient celebrations, is marked by the vernal equinox. Yep for almost two weeks over a 100 million people in Iran and Pakistan celebrate the rebirth of nature – a “new day” – at the start of spring. A major part of the holiday is a deep cleaning about three weeks before the vernal equinox, during which homes are tidied and cleared of clutter to make way for a fresh start.
The ancient Egyptians also celebrated the start of their new year in the spring, but this was primarily tied to an actual renewal of their land caused by the annual flooding of the Nile which laid down fresh topsoil and thus assured a good growing season. Folks who study this kinda stuff tell us this was a multi-day festival featuring consumption of lotsa beer and of uninhibited sexual activity. New Year’s as a party time? How quaint.
In India, the new year celebrates the beginning of the harvest season as opposed to the start of the planting season. These festivities mark beginning of the harvest season with cultural performances, feast days, singing, dancing and readings from sacred writings. The festival of lights, known as “Diwali iwali” is enjoyed by millions of Sikhs and Hindus all over the world. These celebrations coincide with the Hindu New Year, last for five days and are usually held between mid-October and mid-November, depending on the Hindu lunar calendar.
We, of course, owe the timing of our celebration of the new year to the ancient Romans who originally linked the celebration with the vernal equinox but, after some variations, finally settled on January 1. You see, the month of January got its name from the Roman’s two-faced deity Janus, the god of change, beginnings, and of doorways – entryways to something different. Janus had two faces, one looking back at the old and the other ahead to the new. This concept continues to this day with New Year’s celebrations symbolizing transition from one year to the next such as the “old” as an old man and the “new” as a baby.
Although our culture no longer associates the new year with the growing season, we retain the some features of old customs – such as raucous parties involving alcohol, celebratory fireworks such as the Chinese use to announce the new year and drive away evil spirits, and most of all, our self imposed resolutions to cleanse our lives of that which is undesirable and to improve the way we live.
Well, there you have it – a brief summary of how humankind continues to satisfy that need for periodic renewal in our lives. And so I figure we shouldn’t resist that fundamental compulsion but celebrate the new year with both reconciliation with the past and resolution for the future. At least that’s how it seems to me. (Bill Taylor is a regular Greene County Daily contributing columnist and local area resident.)
Bill Taylor is a regular contributing columnist and local area resident.