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A Brief History of New Year's

By Olivia Klostermann

The history of New Year’s Eve (and how it has changed date and tradition, etc)

Have you ever wondered why we have New Year’s on the first of January? Or where all the traditions that we celebrate originated?

Well, the first New Year’s celebrations began circa 2000 BCE in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq, as well as parts of Iran, Kuwait, Syria and Turkey) and were celebrated by people called the Babylonians. Their New Year occurred at the vernal equinox, the end of March and was celebrated through the religious festival called Akitu, which honoured the chief Babylonian god Marduk. Celebrations for the New Year continued for 11 days and included various rituals, the specific details of which are largely forgotten. The importance of the vernal equinox to the Babylonians was that it commemorated the time when Marduk defeated Tiamat, or in other words, the Babylonian sky god defeated the evil sea goddess.

It was all back in the time of the Babylonians when the tradition of making New Year's resolutions was created, as people would purposefully commit to better actions, including more frequent sacrifices, to gain the favour of the gods.  

And what about the Romans? A very valid question when it comes to pretty much anything that the Western world commemorates. 

The Roman republican calendar celebrated the New Year on March 1st,  where festivals were conducted to honour the goddess of the year, Anna Perenna. After 153 BCE however, the date of New Year’s changed to be what it is today, January 1st, and this date was continued through Julius Caesar’s solar-based Julian calendar, established in 46 BCE. On New Year’s, people would exchange gifts, add laurel branches to their homes as decorations and offer sacrifices to the gods of ‘beginning’. In particular, Romans would offer their god Janus, who was always represented with two faces, one facing forward and the other backward. This meant he was both looking back the the past and forward to the future, quite a nice image to represent how today, we make resolutions based on our past, trying to benefit our future, at the anticipated ball drop. 

The next important milestone in this brief summary is the Medieval era (also known as the Middle Ages or Dark Ages). This period began circa 476 CE and continued for approximately 1000 years. Originally, William the Conqueror had January 1st as New Year’s Day to coincide with his coronation (which occurred on Christmas Day of 1066), however, in the 12th century, England rejoined the rest of Christendom in Europe, declaring New Year’s as March 25th. This was to conform with the Christian festival of the Annunciation (when the Angel Gabriel visited Mary to tell her she would be the mother of Jesus). 

Finally, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII implemented the Gregorian calendar in Rome and Catholicism. This replaced the previously-mentioned Julian calendar, adding in a leap year every 4 years. Today, the Gregorian calendar is still used throughout most parts of the world, particularly the Western world. By doing so, Pope Gregory established New Year’s as January 1st once again. Most European countries and both present and past European colonies followed suit, with Scotland implementing the Gregorian calendar in 1660, Germany and Denmark in about 1770, England in 1752 and Russia in 1918. 

There was quite a battle (not literally - we are talking about history, so…just thought I’d clarify) to get there!

And what about today? Well, whilst celebrating New Year on January 1st is still quite common, multiple cultures and religions celebrate this festival at a different time of the year. For example, in Judaism, the New Year begins on Rosh Hashana, the first day of the mother of Tishri, which occurs between September 6th and October 5th. Additionally, the Chinese New Year changes date every year because it is based on a lunar calendar. Usually, this falls between January 21st and February 20th, and is traditionally a time to exorcise evil spirits and worship ancestors. Celebrations during Chinese New Year include lion dancing, dragon dancing, temple fairs, flower market shopping and the exchange of red envelopes. 



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