At 6 a.m. our time it will be the first moments of the New Year in Auckland, New Zealand. Being closest to the International Date Line, New Zealand will be the first to usher in 2009. For those of us who make our homes in the Ohio valley, the New Year will not arrive at our doorsteps for several more hours.
That invisible but ever present time line where each day begins will start its uninterrupted travel around the darkened side of our planet headed toward our town. Millions of people around the world will watch as clocks count down the final seconds of a difficult 2008 and welcome in the uncertain hopes of a 2009.
Four thousand years ago in the ancient city of Babylon the oldest of all holidays was first celebrated as the beginning of a New Year.
A few thousand years later the New Year date was set with the arrival of the new moon after the spring equinox. The day we now celebrate has no astronomical or growing season attached to the Jan. 1 date. It is purely arbitrary based on the Roman calendar.
In 153 BC the Roman Senate came to the decision that Jan. 1 would be the first official day of the Roman New Year. Rome's politicians continued to tamper with the official day until Julius Caesar, in the year 46 BC, worked to establish the first Julian calendar. This finally set the first of January as the beginning of the year. It has remained that date in most cultures even today.
We often see at this time of year the symbol of the New Year as a baby with a banner across its chest inscribed with the New Year. Likewise, 2600 years ago the citizens of Greece used a baby as a way to celebrate the year's beginning. They would parade a child around in a basket as a way to celebrate their God. This symbolized his rebirth and the spirit of fertility.
Today the beginning of a New Year often inspires us to act on different superstitions. We also use the holiday to make resolutions to change or make personal improvements in the upcoming year.
At the stroke of midnight it is said we should kiss the person we love. It is an old superstition that if you do not kiss that person it will result in a year of coldness. I believe if you perhaps kiss the wrong person and get caught, that would also result in a year of coldness and silence.
Another old belief is that we should settle personal debts before the New Year. Perhaps that is why the early Babylonians had a tradition of returning borrowed items before the arrival of the New Year. The items they often borrowed from their neighbors were tools used for farming. If returned soon enough it may prevent you're neighbor from fulfilling his resolution by retrieving his tools and giving a punch in the nose to the forgetful neighbor.
The first person to enter your house on the New Year is very important according to another old superstition. After the midnight hour the first person to step foot into your house would have a direct bearing on the type of year the homeowner would have. It helped if they would bring you a small gift such as salt or a sprig of evergreen. A lump of coal was also seen as a good omen, as was a silver coin.
It is said those that are of red or blond hair should be turned away from the door. The first to arrive also cannot have flat feet, crossed eyes, or an eyebrow that meets in the center.
The best person to cross your doorstep should be a good looking man, tall, dark haired and with a lump of coal as a gift. Well, that would leave me out. I never will resemble Cary Grant, but I did correct that eyebrow thing. I guess my wife will have to close her eyes before I kiss her at the final stroke of midnight.
The New Year is often welcomed with horns blowing, fireworks, and loud noises. This tradition dates back to the belief that evil spirits and the devil dislike loud noises.
It was also believed that placing a flat cake onto the horn of a cow could foretell the coming of the year's prosperity for medieval farmers. If the cow threw the cake onto the ground in front of the farmer it would be a good year. If the cake fell behind the cow it was a sign of bad luck. Of course anything that falls behind a cow should be avoided and not stepped in. Even today I would consider that bad luck.
For those of you who look forward to New Year's Day football games, you may realize the first Rose Bowl game was played in 1902. You may not know that the next Rose Bowl football game was not played until 1916. The organizers of the first Rose Bowl game invited Michigan to come to southern California and play Stanford. The lop-sided game resulted in the western school loosing 49 to nothing. I personally believe that Stanford was so humiliated by the defeat they took their football and went home.
After that, Roman style chariot races were organized and replaced football for the next 14 years. I guess those in charge of the Rose Bowl felt the chariot races would be more interesting to the public and less embarrassing to the local college. There may have been a belief that only people with one eyebrow and flat feet would be permitted to race the chariots. Perhaps they figured that if flatfooted, unibrowed chariot drivers were busy racing they would be unlikely to show up at your house and bring an omen of bad luck.
The most universal New Year's tradition is the making of a New Year's resolution. Some dedicate themselves to quitting smoking, losing weight, or spend more time with family. Others look for goodwill and hope for peace on earth. It is the only 24 hour period where we collectively stop and as a civilization look toward the New Year with hope for a better tomorrow.
On behalf of the Wetzel Chronicle staff and myself, our resolution is that you and your family find the joy in the New Year.
Remember, if a good looking guy shows up at your door with a lump of coal and asks to watch the chariot races, that is a good thing as I see it Thru The Lens.