The constellations, with astrological signs of the zodiac, Andreas Cellarius; image taken from Atlas Coelestis, 1660
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For many people, time is a daunting thing to understand. Scientists, geologists, and archeologists have dated the age of the earth to around 4.54 billion years (plus or minus a few dozen million years). Civilizations have used various ways to keep track of time in order to plant crops or follow game. Knowing the cycle of the sun was incredibly important. Over time, science evolved and those who observed the sky began to track the positions of the stars, sun, and moon. Contributions from Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Greeks and Romans, and cultures in the Near East have all combined to create modern calendars. Let’s dive into the history of a few of those calendars and their New Year celebrations.

In 46 BCE, Julius Caesar introduced the Julian calendar with quite a bit of science behind it. As the Roman Empire evolved into the Christian/Catholic empire in Europe, the calendar stayed put. Eventually, the start of a new year was aligned with the birth of Christ but errors in calculations meant that the equinox was moving backwards by one full day every 130 years. To many in the Catholic Church, this was scandalous. According to the Galileo Project at Rice University:

“The most important feast day on the Christian calendar is Easter, when the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ are celebrated. In the New Testament, we find that Christ’s crucifixion occurred in the week of Passover. On the Jewish calendar, Passover was celebrated at the full moon of the first month (Nissan) of spring. In developing their own calendar (4th century CE), Christians put Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. If the equinox was wrong, then Easter was celebrated on the wrong day. Most other Christian observances (e.g., the beginning of Lent, Pentecost) are reckoned backward or forward from the date of Easter. An error in the equinox thus introduced numerous errors in the entire religious calendar. Something had to be done. After the unification of the Papacy in Rome, in the fifteenth century, Popes began to consider calendar reform.”

The funerary monument of Pope Gregory XIII, carved between 1715 and 1723 by Camillo Rusconi; courtesy St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
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It took some effort, but a new calendar was introduced in 1582 under Pope Gregory XIII. While it was immediately adopted in Catholic countries, Protestant countries were slow to change. In fact, England began their new year on March 25 based on quite an old custom. The differences in dates meant that the date of February 11, 1672 in England was February 21, 1673 on the European continent. It wasn’t until the middle of the 18th century that the English and its American colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar.

In recent decades, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day have taken off as major holidays, especially in the United States. Communities across the country have First Night festivities that typically involve entertainment and fireworks. The biggest celebration takes place in New York City’s Time Square and goes back to 1904. The main event, though, was introduced a few years later in 1907. That was the first time that the New Year’s Eve Ball descended from the flagpole at One Times Square. That first ball weighed 700 pounds and was made of iron and wood with 100 light bulbs. Over the years, the spectacle has grown immensely.

The most recent ball used was a geodesic sphere weighing 11,875 pounds, covered in 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles. It was lit with over 32,000 multicolor LEDs, which produced more than 16 million color patterns. Waterford Crystal will introduce a new ball design in 2021. Here are the details straight from the Official Website of Times Square:

New Year’s Eve Headline, January 1, 1905; courtesy Times Square District Management Association
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“For Times Square 2021, 192 Waterford Crystal triangles introduce the new Gift of Happiness design, represented by a sunburst of bright cuts radiating outward like a beautiful sunny day bringing warm smiles and happiness. 192 are the Gift of Goodwill design of three pineapples signifying the traditional symbol of hospitality and goodwill. 192 are the Gift of Harmony design of small rosette cuts flowing into each other in beautiful harmony. 192 are the Gift of Serenity design of butterflies flying peacefully above a crystal meadow capturing the spirit of serenity. 192 are the Gift of Kindness design of a circle of rosettes symbolizing unity with the fronds reaching out in an expression of kindness. 192 are the Gift of Wonder design of a faceted starburst inspiring our sense of wonder. 192 are the Gift of Fortitude design of diamond cuts on either side of a crystal pillar to represent the inner attributes of resolve, courage and spirit necessary to triumph over adversity. The remaining 1,344 triangles are the Gift of Imagination design of a series of intricate wedge cuts that are mirrored reflections of each other inspiring our imagination.”

Workers install LED panels in the New Year’s Eve Ball; image by Anthony Quintano
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Even though the 2021 festivities at Time Square will be closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the celebration continues online with live performances and, of course, that famous New Year’s Eve Ball.

A Scottish poem written by Robert Burns in 1788 is another common feature of New Year’s Eve. The song “Auld Lang Syne” roughly translates to “for old times’ sake” and looks back over the recent year and times with friends. The lyrics have been translated and changed over the years but the sentiment remains:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne.

And surely you’ll buy your cup!
And surely I’ll buy mine!
And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

We two have run about the hills,
And picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
Since auld lang syne.

We two have paddled in the stream,
From morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
Since auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
For auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my jo,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

A congregation worshiping during Rosh Hashanah, Arthur Szyk, 1948; courtesy United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
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The Hebrew, or Jewish, calendar is quite different in that it is a lunar calendar as opposed to a solar calendar. The Hebrew calendar follows the location of the moon and its phases dating back to the biblical beginnings of the earth. There are 12 months in the Hebrew calendar: Nissan, Iyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Menachem Av, Elul, Tishrei, Marcheshvan, Kislev, Tevet, Shevat, and Adar. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is celebrated in the seventh month, Tishrei. It marks the first month in the Jewish civil calendar and the date of the year changes.

Jewish life—selling New Year’s cards, East Side, New York City; courtesy Library of Congress click image to enlarge

Rosh Hashanah is the start of the 10-day period of self-reflection leading to Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, marks the day in which God decides who is righteous and worthy of a place in the Book of Life. Both days are High Holy Days in the Jewish faith. Work is prohibited and observers often spend time in prayer. The shofar, a trumpet-like instrument made from a ram’s horn, is used throughout these holidays. A common treat is apples dipped in honey in a nod to a sweet new year. Challah is baked in rounds to symbolize the cyclical nature of life.

In Islam, the Gregorian calendar is used for civil events while the Hijri is used to mark Islamic holidays. The Hijri, or Islamic calendar, dates back to the year 622, the year that the Prophet Muhammad made his migration from the city of Makkah (Mecca) to the city of Al Madina El Monawara (Medina). The Hijri is about 10-11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar so the Islamic New Year date changes significantly in the Gregorian year. This lunar calendar contains 12 months, which are separated into Sacred and Non-Sacred months.

Muharram: One of the Sacred Months and the first month of the Hijri year, is given its name, Forbidden, because fighting is forbidden during it.

Safar: The second month in the Hijri year is apparently named Safar because Arabs used to loot the houses of their enemies after defeating them in battle, leaving nothing behind.

Rabi Al-Awwal and Rabi Ath-Thani: These two months coincide with the spring, as well as, a period when those victorious in war could enjoy their new possessions, seized in the previous month of Safar.

Jumada Al-Ula and Jumada Al-Akhirah: Coinciding with the winter season, these two months are named because of water freezing.

Rajab: A Sacred Month, means respect and honor.

Sha’aban: Apparently named for the crossings or journeys the Arabs undertook in search of water whilst going to war. Sha’aban follows a month of abstinence from violence during the previous month of Rajab.

Ramadan: It is named for the high temperatures caused by the summer sun and is the traditional fasting month for Muslims.

Shawwal: It is named due to being the cyclical birthing season for camels that would normally raise their tails in this season.

Dhu Al-Qa’da: This Sacred Month is named after the Arabic word for ‘sitting’, where Muslims must ‘sit out’ or abstain from war (although it is permissible to defend yourself if attacked).

Dhu Al-Hijja: A Sacred Month, during which the Hajj pilgrimage occurs, is the last month of Hijri Year.

 

The Chinese lunar calendar has ancient roots that go back well over 2,000 years. While the Chinese use the Gregorian calendar today to mark civil dates, their traditional calendar still determines the dates of holidays, including the Chinese New Year. The Chinese New Year is marked by the new moon that falls between the end of January and February and lasts for 15 days until the Festival of Lanterns. This date is also the first day of the first month of the Chinese calendar. Some of the most recognizable symbols of the Chinese New Year are the zodiac animals that mark each year. The animals are: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.

Lanterns glow at Thean Hou Temple in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, during Chinese New Year; photograph by Amril Izan Imran
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The Chinese New Year celebration focuses on family and home. Families prepare their homes in the days and weeks leading up to the holiday. Sacrifices are made to gods and ancestors, with sincere respect paid to elders by the younger children. On New Year’s Eve, extended family comes together for a massive feast filled with symbolism and tradition. The following day, New Year’s Day, begins the 15-day celebration. Families exchange gifts, serve lucky foods, and making sure that their actions do not attract any bad luck. Some try not to use knives or scissors to help stay safe from bad luck; others even stop sweeping their floors so they would not accidentally sweep out the good luck. The celebration culminates with the Lantern Festival. Traditionally, families would craft paper lanterns to help see the gods and then parade through the streets with them.

These are just a few of the dozens of calendars used throughout the world today. Take some time and explore how other cultures throughout the world calculate their days, weeks, months, and years.