So here we are, in 2023. This is where I would ordinarily write something about New Year's resolutions and whether they are a good idea, or how we can use the clean slate of a new year to reinvent ourselves professionally ... but this year, I stumbled across the origins of New Year celebrations and found it so interesting I had to share it with you.
I hadn't really given it much thought, to be fair. New Year's Day is the first day of the new year ... it's not exactly the world's most complicated concept. But across the globe, there are several cultures that don't celebrate New Year's Day on January 1. In fact, they don't follow the same calendars to mark time. So I found myself wondering what the deal was with this holiday.
The earliest record of New Year festival celebrations dates back over 4000 years to ancient Mesopotamia. Here, the new year started in mid-March after the spring equinox and was known as Akitu. The ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians and Persians similarly started the year with the autumn equinox in September, while the Greeks started the new year on December 21 - the winter solstice. The Romans followed the Roman republican calendar, which started the year on March 1, until 153 BCE, at which point the official date was moved to January 1.
You might think that that was that. But you'd be wrong. Early medieval Christian Europe bounced between March, December and January a bit, but the Roman Catholic Church adopting the Gregorian calendar in 1582 set the groundwork for January 1 to mark the main event for the vast majority of us. However, the widespread adoption of this date across Europe was a slow process, with Germany and Denmark not catching on until around 1700, England in 1752 and Russia as late as 1918.
Despite this, there are many cultures that use different calendars that observe the beginning of a new year on different days. The Jewish religious calendar places it between September 6 and October 5, the Islamic (or Hijiri) calendar, being a lunar calendar, doesn't even have the same number of days in the year (354/5), and the Chinese New Year is celebrated in late January/early February. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was learning that many Christian groups ring in the new year with the Feast of Circumcision - that's right, a big meal to celebrate Jesus's penis. Not sure I'll look at our traditional Aussie New Year's BBQ sausages quite the same way. You're welcome.
We all seem to mark our time on this planet a little differently.
And that really is what this is about, isn't it? Marking time. But why do we celebrate it? In fact, why have we celebrated it for thousands of years across such diverse cultures and historical epochs of time (even though it's often on different days)? Why is the transition from 11.59pm to one second past midnight so important on this particular night of the year?
David Ropeik, a retired Harvard University teacher, suggests that New Year's Day is an opportunity to collectively celebrate the most basic and yet most powerful motivation of humankind: our survival. We've made it through another lap around the sun (or 12 full moon cycles), we've scored a time-goal on the chronological football match that maps both our individual and species progress. Often something to toast to, eh? Although lately at least, perhaps it's as much about sending off a year that's been particularly challenging with a last hurrah and a raspberry.
Interestingly, the history of making New Year's resolutions is one that seems to extend as far back as the first record of New Year celebrations. Psychologists suggest that these resolutions are actually about wanting to exert some level of control over our future. Notoriously, the setting of resolutions is consistently unsuccessful in any meaningful way for most of us, with studies demonstrating an average of 88 per cent of us failing to achieve those New Year goals. But if the psychologists are correct, then the outcome of our resolutions is perhaps less important than the actual act of making them.
So, no matter how you celebrate it, may the next year bring you health, wealth, and joy; or failing all that, at least the sense that you have the power to be the driver of your own destiny - whether successful or otherwise!
But this year, we might do rissoles on the barbie.
- Zoë Wundenberg is a careers consultant and un/employment advocate at impressability.com.au, and a regular columnist for ACM.