Notes from the Curator's Office:

A Roman coin depicting Janus.

New Year's Irresolutions

(01/07) Like anybody else, I make New Year,s resolutions: Eat less, exercise more, be nicer to small, furry animals, etc. And like everybody, I start breaking them about 23 hours into the New Year.

Why do we put ourselves through this? Why do we set ourselves up for failure just a few days after celebrating a, spanking, brand-new 365 days? Well, maybe we should blame the ancient Babylonians. They were perhaps the first people to celebrate the new year starting about 4,000 years ago. Though they had no written calendar, they set the holiday around March 23rd. This is actually a fairly logical place to mark a new year. After all, it is the spring. It's the time to plant new crops and nature starts to show signs of life after the long winter.

Today our New Year's Eve parties are probably only tiny, pale reflections of the Babylonian festivals which lasted an exhausting eleven days. Though modern celebrants can blame the Babylonians for inventing the New Year's hangover, we need to jump forward another millennium or so to find the first people we know of that made resolutions: The Romans.

The Romans had originally celebrated the New Year in March, just like the Babylonians, but as each new emperor came along and fooled with the calendar ("Gee, let's add a month with my name to the year to celebrate the wonderfulness of me!") it bore little resemblance to the original seasons. Finally, in 154 BC, the Roman senate got tired of all the fiddling and declared January 1st to be the New Year. It was at this same time that the Roman god Janus - the god of doorways - got associated with the changing of the year. Janus was unique among the Roman gods in that he had one face on the front of his head and one on the back. The Romans imagined him looking forward into the future and backward into the past. The New Year celebrations back then served as a sort of Christmas including the exchange of gifts. One popular gift was coins, often inscribed with Janus' likeness. Janus also quickly became associated with the idea of New Year's resolutions.

During the Middle Ages, New Year's day switched around a bit more. They tried moving it to Christmas and then back to March (for the Annunciation Feast). In the sixteenth century, however, Pope Gregory XIII revised our calendar (which is why we call our calendar the Gregorian Calendar) for a final time and put New Years day back to January 1st and, for western cultures, it has been there ever since.

Just a little side note, April Fool's Day (April 1st) probably came from the last day of the New Year's spring festival before Gregory switched it back to January 1st. People who continued to celebrate the New Year in the spring therefore were considered, well, fools…

Other New Year's Celebrations

The head of a dragon used in the traditional Dragon Dance (This file is licensed under Creative Commons ShareAlike 1.0 License:

Not that every culture celebrates the new year on January 1st. The Chinese New Year occurs in late January or early February based on two full moons after the winter solstice (with some occasional exceptions). The Chinese festival actually outdoes the ancient Babylonians by lasting 15 days and is probably the most important holiday on the Chinese calendar. The celebrations include the use of firecrackers to frighten away evil spirits (though, for safety reasons these have been outlawed in many places in recent years - no doubt to the relief of harried evil spirits) and the traditional dragon dance.

The dragon dance is perhaps one of the most colorful New Year's traditions of any culture. The Chinese Dragon costume used in the dance is long (perhaps 30 feet), snake-like and is carried in the air on poles by a line of human operators. This allows them to weave and bob the dragon's body in complex patterns as they march. The head of the dragon is often rigged to belch smoke or make other animated movements. A truly astounding show is a double-dragon dance in which two groups work their dragons together to intertwine the bodies.

The Islamic New Year starts on the first day of Muharram. Since the Muslim calendar is based on 12 lunar months which add up to only 354 days, the day of the New Year shifts eleven days earlier each year. This means that in 2008 we will actually see two Muslim New Years in one Gregorian calender year.

The Sri Lankans celebrate their national New Year in April. Unlike most celebrations that start at midnight, the hour the year begins in this case is determined by astrologers. They also determine the end of the old year. Sometimes the astrologers fail to make these two meet up perfectly and there are a few hours in between which are neither the old year or the new year. This time is called the "nona gathe" (neutral period). During this period people are instructed to engage in nothing but religious activities.

The Scotts, while they use the Gregorian Calendar and celebrate on January 1st with most of the western world, have some unusual New Years customs. One of the most interesting is the idea of "first footers." A first footer is the first person who steps into your house in the new year. Traditionally the best "first footers" are considered tall, black-haired men. They bring good luck to your household for the next twelve months. Why? Apparently this part of the custom dates back to the time of the Vikings. Vikings were often short and fair-haired. Since having a Viking enter your home to do some looting and plundering was pretty much bad luck - anytime of the year - and a tradition developed favoring non-Norse-looking visitors.

First footers are supposed to bring a gift and can be considered unlucky if they don't. Other people can be unlucky based only who they are. In fact, there is quite a list of people you traditionally don't want stepping into your house on New Year's morning: Red-haired people, doctors, ministers, thieves, grave-diggers, flat-footed people and, worst of all, someone whose eyebrows meet in the middle of their forehead. Though many of these traditions have faded in recent years, it occurs to me that if, in the past, you had happened to be a red-haired minister with flat-feet that dug graves for your church cemetery part-time and sported a uni-brow, you probably shouldn't have even bothered to get out of bed on January 1st.

Well, I digress from my original topic, undoubtably to avoid my New Year's resolutions this year. Perhaps what I need is a new approach. It seems to me that since I can never keep my resolutions, perhaps some reverse psychology would help me out. In that spirit, here are my top ten resolutions for this year:

1) Gain weight - Put on 20 pounds by the end of March.

2) Watch more TV - I don't want to miss an espisode of any of those reality TV shows on this spring.

3) Get less exercise - I should couch potato at least an hour and a half three times a week - exception, I can work out my thumb on the TV remote control.

4) Do less Reading - I'll just wait for the movie.

5) Procrastinate - Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow.

6) Junk up the garage - Who cares if we can't fit the cars inside?

7) Avoid garden work - Weeds should have a chance to live, too.

8) Take up a new vice - Perhaps chewing tobacco would be fun.

9) Spend less time with my kids - They need more hours to watch the cartoon network anyway.

10) Learn to dance - Start with the Macarena.

Copyright Lee Krystek 2007. All Rights Reserved.



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