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Ringing in the new

When we celebrate the coming of the new year, we’re continuing a tradition that goes back millennia.

When we celebrate the coming of the new year, we're continuing a tradition that goes back millennia. Here's everything you need to know.

Who began New Year's?

Early Egyptian, Babylonian, and Chinese civilizations all had rituals to mark the beginning of a new year. As early as 3000 B.C., the ancient Egyptians held the festival of Wepet Renpet ("opening of the year") — not on Jan. 1, but tied to the annual flooding of the Nile River around mid-July. The holiday celebrated fertility and rebirth, and in addition to solemn religious rituals it involved dancing, feasting, and prodigious beer drinking. Some 4,000 years ago, the ancient Babylonians held the 12-day feast of Akitu to celebrate the beginning of the agricultural season around the spring equinox. Statues of the gods were paraded through the streets, feasts were held, and either a new king was crowned or the reigning king's rule was symbolically renewed. The earliest Chinese New Year celebrations date back more than 3,000 years; they likewise were tied to the spring planting season, and began with the second new moon after the winter solstice.

When did New Year's become tied to Jan. 1?

It began with the ancient Romans. When Julius Caesar revamped the lunar calendar in 45 B.C. — adding leap years to compensate for the inconvenient fact that Earth's rotation around the sun takes 365.24 days, and not an even 365 — the resulting Julian calendar established Jan. 1 as the first day of the year. (Previously it'd been tied to the vernal equinox in March — a fact reflected by the number-derived names of the later months: September meaning the seventh month, October the eighth, and so forth.) January's name derived from Janus, who was the god of new beginnings but also had two faces — so the dawn of the New Year was tied to both looking back at the old and ahead to the new. Romans celebrated Jan. 1 by giving offerings to Janus and exchanging gifts of figs and honey.

Did Jan. 1 remain New Year's?

Not everywhere. Through the Middle Ages the New Year was celebrated at different times in different places and periods, most often at the spring equinox in March. When Pope Gregory XIII tweaked the Julian calendar in the late 16th century, his Gregorian calendar also set Jan. 1 as the start of the new year. But the Protestant British, and subsequently the American colonies, resisted this Catholic invention, sticking with the Julian calendar and observing New Year's Day on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation. That lasted until 1752, when the Brits and colonists finally gave in and adopted the Gregorian calendar, and began marking the new year on Jan. 1.

How did New Year's resolutions begin?

They have their roots in the very earliest new year's festivals. During Akitu, the Mesopotamians would make vows to the gods to work hard, pay their debts, and return borrowed items. In Caesar's day, on Jan. 1 Romans would make sacrifices and vow to behave honorably in the coming year. In the Middle Ages, during Christmas week knights would place their hands on a peacock and renew their vows of chivalry. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, established in the mid 18th century a New Year's tradition of renewing one's commitment to God, a counterpoint to the more earthly celebrations in which others indulged. There are no hard markers for when religious resolutions gave way to vows to shed pounds, drink less grog, and engage in personal improvement, but a Boston newspaper article from 1813 contained what's considered the first documented use of the phrase "new year's resolution." It referred to the "multitudes" who will "sin all the month of December," then start the new year with reforms they hope will "expiate and wipe away all their former faults."

When did Times Square become a focal point?

The annual ball drop there is quite literally a media creation. The seed was planted in 1904, when The New York Times moved its headquarters from downtown Manhattan to Broadway and 43rd Street in Midtown. Drawn by an ad in the paper, on Dec. 31 hundreds of thousands of revelers packed the streets by the new Times building. At midnight, explosives were set off atop the building, "a funeral pyre for the old which pierced the very heavens," the paper wrote. The spectacle was repeated the following three years, until the city nixed the pyrotechnics. In 1908 they gave way to a 700-pound wood-and-iron ball lit by 100 bulbs, lowered from the building's flagpole, to great shouting, horns, and cowbells. Save the war years of 1942 and 1943, a version of the ball — now an LED-lit, 12-foot sphere covered in Waterford crystal — has dropped every year since. It's an event watched by an estimated billion people on TV, and attended by throngs that still mirror the description in the Times that first year, when "the crush was so great that progress was well-nigh impossible in any direction."

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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