A Brief History of New Year Celebrations

The earliest recorded festivities in honor of a new year’s arrival dates back some 4,000 years to ancient Babylon. For the Babylonians, the first new moon following the vernal equinox, a day in late March with an equal amount of sunlight and darkness, and this ushered in the beginning of a new year.

If the first recorded New Year’s celebration was in March, how did it move to January 1st?

The answer to that question may be found at History.com where we discover that Emperor Julius Cesar introduced the Julian calendar in 46 BC, and it closely resembled the more modern Gregorian calendar that most countries use today. In addition, Cesar made January 1st the first day of the year, partly to honor the month’s namesake, Janus, the Roman god of beginnings.

Therefore, if you celebrate the New Year on January 1st, you are celebrating a pagan holiday. But all is not lost. Later, after the fall of the Roman Empire, Christian leaders in medieval Europe during the Dark Ages replaced January 1st as the first day of the year with days carrying more religious significance such as December 25, the anniversary of Jesus’s birth, and that lasted until Pope Gregory XIII (AD 1502 – 1585) reestablished January 1st as New Year’s Day in 1582.

Countries that do NOT celebrate the New Year on the first of January

For China, the first day of the New Year falls between January 21 and February 20.  The Chinese New Year is celebrated at the turn of the Chinese calendar, also known as the Spring Festival.

The Chinese New Year gained significance because of several myths and traditions. History.com reports the ancient Chinese calendar, on which the Chinese New Year is based, functioned as a religious, dynastic and social guide. Oracle bones inscribed with astronomical records indicate that it existed as early as the 14th century BC, during the Shang Dynasty.

Traditionally, the festival was a time to honor deities (gods) as well as ancestors. The Chinese New Year is celebrated in countries and territories that have significant Chinese populations, including Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mauritius, and the Philippines.

In 2015, China witnessed 261 million people on the move to celebrate the Lunar New Year holiday, and they traveled by road, rail and air—all over a short period of time. The Chinese Lunar New Year for 2016 takes place on Monday, February 8, and it is a national holiday that runs from February 7 – 13. If you are curious and want to see what it looks like in China when all those people are on the road at the same time, the International Business Times has a great photo spread to scroll through.

When we visited China in 2008 during this incredibly crowded holiday for travelers, the Lunar New Year was on February 7, the Year of the Rat. In 2017 it will be the Year of the Rooster on January 28th. Each year is related to an animal sign according to a 12-year-cycle.

Back during the Year of the Rat in 2008, it was so crowded when we were traveling in China, that it felt as if we were swimming upriver through an ocean filled with people and no water.

For readers who haven’t been to China and want to visit one day, this may be your only chance to experience a taste of what it’s like to live in a country with more than 1.3 billion people. By the way, 261 million people is more than 80% of the population of the United States. Imagine the gridlock if that many Americans took to the roads and air all at the same time.

2015 Lunar New Year in Shanghai, China

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the unique love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.


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