Our family does not tend to make a big fuss of New Year’s Day. It has always seemed an arbitrary distinction to me: one year out and one year in. A tiny bit of research shows how arbitrary it is.
For a start, New Year’s Day is a different day in different cultures. You already knew that. The Chinese celebrate New Year around a month later (the precise date depending on movements of the sun and moon). In parts of India, New Year is over three months later, and is celebrated as a Spring festival. In other parts of India, the date is set by a legend:
When Prince Rama, rightful heir to his father’s throne, was banished to the forest for 14 years by his wicked stepmother, Rama’s wife was kidnapped by the evil Demon King Ravan, ruler of a neighboring land. A battle ensued and Rama, aided by the monkey warrior Hanuma, rescued his wife, defeated Ravan and returned to his kingdom to reclaim his throne. In celebration of Rama’s victory, people feasted and lit oil lamps in their homes. Such was the first Indian New Year celebration known as Diwali, meaning “Row of Lights.”
Today, the festival falls in late October or early November and is celebrated according to regional customs. In Northern India, for example, every town and village glows with thousands of lights and homes are decorated with little oil lamps called diwa, intended to drive out evil and replace it with goodness. People try to complete any unfinished work since Diwali marks the end of the year. Businesses pay off all debts and new account books are blessed before the New Year. People buy new things for their homes, or purchase new tools or even new clothes. Cards and gifts are exchanged, New Year resolutions are made and all quarrels are forgiven and forgotten, since this is a time of year to be happy and generous. Even the animals who have been worked are washed, groomed and decorated for the festival.
The Normans also celebrated New Year as a Spring festival, in March. 25 March (or Lady’s Day) continued to be regarded by some in England as the start of the New Year until the Calendar Act of 1751. In fact, accountancy being a conservative breed, 31 March is still the end of one year and 1 April the start of another for many commercial organisations — at least for tax and accounting purposes.
On the other hand, the Celts put their New Year a lot earlier, at the festival of Samhain, or Summer’s End (in October). And Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is usually in September, though it can be as late as early October.
The Scots had been starting their New Year on 1 January since 1600, so when King James VI of Scotland became James I of England, many people began following the Scots timing. Which means sorting out what happened in which year can be interesting. “For example, in The Tower of London there is some graffiti scratched into a cell wall by someone imprisoned in January 1642 for his role in the Battle of Edgehill (which took place on 23 October 1642).” [Andrew Benham on Calendar Reform]
And I’ve already mentioned before on this blog that the liturgical year in the Western Christian churches begins on the 1st Sunday of Advent at the end of November or the beginning of December.
So how was New Year celebrated in my favourite period, just 50 years after an Act of Parliament placed it firmly on 1 January?
To start with, the Roman custom of giving gifts on 1 January had been revived in England in 1200 (by a king who wanted some). So our late Georgian era ladies and gentleman might have exchanged presents on this day, rather than on 6 December (St Nicholas Day), 25 December, or 6 January (the Feast of the Epiphany). Perhaps they might do all four?
Some began the celebration the night before, and stood around the door as midnight approached, ready to sweep out the old and welcome in the new. In the north, the practice of first footing meant waiting for the first guest to cross the doorstep. A tall dark-haired man with a high instep was good luck for the year. Someone with flat feet was bad luck. In different places, lighter hair colours and women might be bad luck or good.
According to the first footing tradition, the first footer entered through the front door, wished everyone well for the year, and left through the back door taking any bad luck left from the old year with them.
An article in the Huffington Post suggests that new year resolutions were an 18th Century Protestant response (possibly Methodist) to pagan New Year practices.
I don’t have new year resolutions, but I do have plans. On the fiction side, I have three novels to be published (one in April, one in September, and one in December), novellas and short stories to write, and a community of writers and readers to enjoy connecting with. My local community is facing a time of change, and I’ve agreed to be part of the leadership team. On the commercial writing side, I’m starting several projects with a client in Australia, which could lead to more Australasian work, and I’m contributing to the development of several new workshops. And, of course, family (especially my PRH) will come first in my priority list.
What are you planning for 2015?