During my earliest days of mulling over the formation of this website emphasizing holidays, one day I was rummaging through some titles at a store selling used books. I stumbled across a copy of a book copyrighted in 2003 and written by a professor of astronomy and anthropology, entitled The Book of the Year—A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays. It gives insight into the customs of many religions and cultures, as well as Christianity and Western cultures.

Since the book does seem to give quite a thorough oversight, I thought I would extract a few details to give a little background on New Years celebrations. Various cultures throughout history have assigned various days as the first day of the year. The author writes, “ ‘Happy New Year!’ has been uttered across the globe on every imaginable date for every conceivable reason.”


One example of a reason used for choosing the beginning of the new year was water in ancient Egypt. The first day a star later named Sirius appeared before dawn was used as a predictor of the flooding of the Nile that brought with it their agricultural season. By 30 B.C. those two factors had gotten out of sync, so the new year was repositioned to August 29th.

For the Incas in Peru, New Year’s Day was assigned to our June 21st, which was the shortest day of the year in the southern hemisphere. Their sun god was called “Inti.” They had an “Inti Raymi” festival, wherein they played music, drank pisco [a yellow or amber brandy made from grapes], and had their fill of roasted guinea pig.

After the French Revolution of 1789, there was a calendar based on a 10-day week, with the autumnal equinox , September 22nd, as their New Year’s Day. [According to Oxford Languages, the definition of “equinox” is “the time and date (twice each year) at which the sun crosses the celestial equator, when day and night are of approximately equal length (about September 22 and March 20).”] Fourteen years later Napoleon reinstated the Gregorian calendar, which based its New Year on the spring equinox.

Some cultures base their New Year’s Day on the moon instead of the sun. Full moon cycles do not coincide with the solar cycle of 365 days. The moon goes through its phases in 29 ½ days, which leaves you with a shortage of eleven days if you use twelve months per year, or an excess of 18 days if you use thirteen months per year.

The cycle of the Jewish calendar is one that is based on the moon. The new year begins in the time of harvest. Old Testament festivals were timed by the crescents of the moon. When the moon-centered years became too far out of sync with the season, they would inject a thirteenth month. The modern Jewish New Year begins somewhere between September 6 and October 5.

Another example of a moon-based year is the Chinese year. The winter solstice commences the Chinese year. [Oxford Languages states that the definition of “solstice” is the time or date (twice each year) at which the sun reaches its maximum declination, marked by the longest and shortest days (about June 21 or December 22).”] Curiously, the Chinese don’t begin the numbering of the year until the time when late January or early February occur on the Christian calendar. On their New Year’s Day, the Chinese spend time with extended family and display fireworks.


Our American calendar comes from the Roman calendar developed about 2,500 years ago. The seasonal year began in March. The month of March was named after the Roman god named “Mars,” the Roman god of war who was expected to protect the land and its crops. At that time the Romans had a 120-day year consisting of March, April, May, and June. Then the Romans added two more month, Quintilus and Saxtilis, which later became July and August [for Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus]. The next four months added—September, October, November, and December—were named for numbers. For instance, the Latin number seven was “Septem,” from which they derived September. Their year had only ten months, totaling 304 days. The ten months were the approximate period of gestation for cattle. It could also be divided evenly by the number eight, which was the number of days they had in their marketing week. When things began to germinate, a new year would be begun.

A Roman emperor added two more months in 153 B.C.  He wanted to coordinate the moon’s phases with the cycles of the sun. He also decided to choose the time when the sun began to come back from the southern regions as the announcement of the new year. The Romans celebrated by overeating and drinking excessively.

Charles IX of France changed the French new year from March 25th to January 1st in 1564. Because the news travelled to the rural population so slowly, they were still doing their New Year’s visiting and gift exchanging after the end of March. This is the origin of April Fool’s Day.

For a more complete understanding of the change to the Gregorian calendar, I consulted a website called calendar.com. In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII set forth the Gregorian calendar. Europe had been using the Julian calendar, the Roman calendar put into place by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C.

Since the calculation of the solar year in the Julian calendar was off by 11 minutes, by the 1570s it was ten days off. This concerned Pope Gregory because Easter was getting further and further away from the spring equinox. He appointed a commission led by a physician and an astronomer, who took five years to create a solution. First they erased the extra ten days. Then they appointed leap years to occur every four years, but not on centennial years that cannot be evenly divided by 400. It isn’t perfect, but quite accurate.

Since this new calendar was instituted by the Catholic church, some countries were very slow to accept it. For instance, Germany didn’t accept it until 1700 and England and its colonies in 1752. There is confusion about how the first day of the year was moved to January 1. Since two calendars were in use for a long period, dates were recorded as “O.S.” (Old Style) or “N.S.” (New Style). George Washington’s birthday was February 11, 1731 (O.S.) and February 22, 1732 (N.S.) Moving the first day of the new year from March 25 to January 1 made his birthday fall in a different year.

Russia didn’t accept the Gregorian calendar until 1918. Since Alaska belonged to Russia until 1867, they didn’t use the new calendar until the U.S. purchased it at that time. Other stragglers were China (1912), Bulgaria (1916), Greece (1923), Turkey (1926), and Saudi Arabia (2016). There have been a few failed attempts to make other changes to the calendar after 1752. Iran and Afghanistan use the “Persian calendar.” According to the National Geographic, the Persian calendar doesn’t require as many adjustments, like leap year. Some say the Mayan calendar is more accurate than the Gregorian calendar.

As a side note, the days of the week were once named after Greek gods. The Romans replaced the names with names of Roman gods. The current names of the week on American calendars were derived from the names of Germanic and Norse gods.


Some countries have customs to celebrate the New Year that many of us in America might consider a little strange. The Reader’s Digest website informs us that people in Spain try to eat 12 grapes in 12 seconds before the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Eve. They also say that in Switzerland blobs of whipped cream are dropped on the floor. They are left there overnight, in the hope that they will bring “richness and wealth” in the coming year.

In America we often have parties, play games, watch movies. Some go to bars. Many want to watch the giant crystal ball drop at the stroke of midnight in New York Time Square. Couples often kiss when the new year arrives. Some bang a big spoon on a kettle or bang two lids together to herald the new year. On New Year’s Day many are glued to the TV, watching football games while they enjoy some hearty, casual foods and special snacks.

Many think of resolutions for the new year, but the resolutions may have gone by the wayside by Valentine’s Day. Perhaps we give up too easily. If the resolution was a valuable one, it would be good to start over again after a lapse.

In my early life, I remember the days when my family always spent New Year’s Eve at a “Watch Night Service” at church. As I recall, there would usually be a message by the pastor. Then there was a time of fellowship and “refreshments.” After that we would come back to the sanctuary for some serious prayer. In time, the Watch Night Service was shortened to allow people to leave and spend the rest of the evening at gatherings or at home. Eventually the Watch Night Service disappeared altogether from  the church we attended. Given the way our nation has declined spiritually since then, maybe those services should not have been discontinued.

I wondered whether Watch Night Services still existed for some. I looked online and found that there are a few that can be watched via live stream. I also discovered that there are a few Watch Night Services that are for Christmas Eve, in anticipation of Christmas Day. In an article called “Watch Night” at britannica.com, I learned that Watch Night Services have another meaning in some churches. On New Year’s Eve of 1862, slaves were awaiting news of Abraham’s Emancipation Proclamation that would set them free the next day. They stayed up all night until dawn to hear the good news that the proclamation had indeed been issued. These services are also referred to as “Freedom’s Eve” services. The traditional Watch Night Services are believed to have begun in the New Year’s Eve prayer vigils in churches in Moravia in the early 1700s. The English preacher John Wesley, who also lived in the 1700s, adopted the idea for the Methodist Church. He held monthly vigils similar to that on the full moon of each month. Whether or not we attend a Watch Night Service, I believe we should, at the very least, take some time to take a spiritual “inventory” and pray for God’s help and guidance in the new year.

Apparently even non-Christians sense that the arrival of a new year is a time for reflection. We’ve all heard the famous song “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve. For gaining more insight into the origin and meaning of the song, I found help at classicfm.com. Although the words of the song were written down by the well known Scottish poet Robert Burns, he stated that he had heard the words in his travels. Robert Burns lived in the second half of the 1700s. Strictly interpreted, “auld lang syne” means “old long since,” but it might be better understood as “for the sake of old times.”  The song speaks of old friends, who had become distant, drinking a toast for the sake of old times. Below is a video of a group called Home Free. They sing the first and fifth verses.


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