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December 31, 2008 > When is the New Year?

When is the New Year?

By Praveena Raman

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

- Lord Tennyson

A New Year is popularly celebrated worldwide today with resolutions, parties, songs, dances, noise and ringing bells. Though a secular holiday, it is in the middle of Christmas which traditionally starts on Dec. 25 and ends with Epiphany on Jan. 6 of the New Year. This gives rise to two questions: Was New Year always celebrated on Jan. 1? And...Does everyone in the world celebrate the New Year in January? The answer to both those questions is "no."

The earliest observance of the New Year can be traced back to 2000 BC in Mesopotamia where Babylonians observed it with the first new moon after the vernal equinox in mid March. Celebrations were tied to their harvest festival and lasted for 11 days. Romans, Hindus and Muslims also traditionally celebrated New Year in the spring, a season of rebirth, of planting new crops, and of blossoming. However, the Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Jews began their new year with the fall equinox, and the Greeks celebrated it on the winter solstice. With the creation of the Julian calendar by Julius Caesar and later the Gregorian calendar (both solar based calendars), Jan. 1 became recognized as New Year's Day. January was named after the Roman god of doors and gates, Janus, who was always depicted with two faces one looking forward and the other backward. With Jan. 1 becoming the door to the new year, one face is looking at the old year, letting it go, and another face looks forward into the new year and new beginnings.

Even though Jan. 1 is celebrated politically and popularly as New Year's Day, many countries and cultures also retain the original celebration of a New Year with astronomical and agricultural significance, thus having two different New Year celebrations. Hindus celebrate New Year at different times of the year. Most Hindus celebrate New Year between March and April. However, Hindus in Gujarat celebrate their New Year during Diwali (especially true for business men). Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanna in the fall while pre Islamic Persians celebrate Naw-Ruz on March 2. Sikhs celebrate Vaisakhi in April and Muslims around the world celebrate Muharram, the Islamic New Year, in different ways. Since Muharam is defined according to the Lunar calendar, it is also celebrated at different times in the year.

In China, New Year is celebrated sometime between Jan. 17 and Feb. 19, at the time of the new moon, and is called Yuan Tan. Similar festivities are celebrated as Je-sok in Korea, Tet in Vietnam and Sang-Sin in Taiwan. In Thailand Songkran is celebrated in April while in Nigeria, the Igbo people bring in the New Year in March. In Japan, Europe, North and South America New Year is celebrated on Jan. 1.

Throughout the world, whether celebrating New Year on Jan. 1 or at other times, festivities are filled with traditions and superstitions; all practiced to keep negative influences of the old year away and usher in the New Year. One of the most popular traditions is to frighten the evil spirits of the old year by making a lot of noise with pots and pans or by the clanging noise of the bells especially ringing of church bells. The ringing of the church bells is called "Change ringing" and requires special bells, which are swung by people (often by climbing towers) in a complete circle. The bells could be sets of four or more with each bell being swung by one person. Change ringing requires a team effort and the music is special; there is no tune and sounds are not melodic.

To the untrained ear this music might seem cacophonous and "wild." Though change ringing can sound chaotic, it actually follows an orderly mathematical sequence and a listener can derive pleasure from its sound when they have heard it for some time. Tennyson in saying, "Ring out wild bells, to the wild sky" might have alluded to the ringing of changes as they might seem wild and chaotic in the beginning but have a structure and order defined by nature.

So, 'Ring out the old and ring in the new,' embrace the changes and start anew.

Happy New Year!

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