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January 2, 2007 > Ring in a happy New Year

Ring in a happy New Year

By Pushpa Warrier

As the dawn of a New Year is celebrated, it is interesting to understand why a "Happy New Year" is celebrated at 12:01 a.m. on January 1st of each year.

New Year, oldest of all holidays, was first observed in ancient Babylon about 4000 years ago. Circa 2000 BC, the Babylonian New Year began with the first New Moon (the first visible crescent) after the Vernal Equinox (first day of spring). Spring, the season of planting new crops, is a logical time to start a new year. January 1, on the other hand, has no astronomical or agricultural significance. So how did the calendar shift so drastically?

The Babylonian New Year celebration lasted for eleven days, each day with its own significance. The Romans continued to observe the New Year in late March, but their calendar was continually changed by various emperors so it was no longer synchronized with the sun. In order to set the calendar right, the Roman senate, in 153 BC, declared January 1 to be the beginning of the New Year. But tampering continued until, in 46 BC, Julius Caesar established what has come to be known as the "Julian Calendar."

It again established January 1 as the New Year, but in order to synchronize the calendar with the sun, Caesar had to let the previous year drag on for 445 days. Although in the first centuries AD the Romans continued celebrating the New Year, the early Catholic Church condemned the festivities as paganism. But as Christianity became more widespread, the church began having its own religious observances concurrently with many of the pagan celebrations; New Year's Day was no different. New Year is still observed as the Feast of Christ's Circumcision by some denominations.

In "Christmas Style" dating, the New Year started on December 25. This was used in Germany and England until the thirteenth century and in Spain from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century. In "Annunciation Style" dating, the New Year started on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation. Introduced by Dionysius Exiguus in AD 525, this was used in many parts of Europe during the Middle Ages. Annunciation Style continued to be used in the Kingdom of Great Britain until January 1, 1752, except Scotland which changed to Circumcision Style dating on January 1, 1600. The rest of Great Britain changed to Circumcision Style on the first of January preceding the conversion in Great Britain from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar September 1752. The United Kingdom tax year still starts on April 6th (March 25 + 12 days - eleven for the conversion from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar plus a dropped leap day in 1900).

In Easter Style dating, the New Year started on Easter Saturday (or sometimes on Good Friday). This was used in France from the eleventh to the sixteenth century. A disadvantage of this system was that because Easter was a movable feast, the same date could occur twice in a year; the two occurrences were distinguished as "before Easter" and "after Easter."

Irrespective of country or creed, tradition or mode of celebration, the transition from one calendar year to the next is an occasion to rejoice, introspect and learn. At this juncture, the following words of the late renowned journalist and author Hal Borland come to mind, "Year's end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us."

Best wishes for a "Happy New Year" from TCV.
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