New Year’s Day, also called simply New Year’s or New Year, is observed on January 1, the first day of the year on the modern Gregorian calendar as well as the Julian calendar. In pre-Christian Rome under the Julian calendar, the day was dedicated to Janus, god of gateways and beginnings, for whom January is also named. As a date in the Gregorian calendar of Christendom, New Year’s Day liturgically marked the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus, which is still observed as such in the Anglican Church and Lutheran Church. Currently, with most countries now using the Gregorian calendar as their de facto calendar, New Year’s Day is probably the most celebrated public holiday, often observed with fireworks at the stroke of midnight as the new year starts in each time zone. Other global New Years’ Day traditions include making New Year’s resolutions and calling one’s friends and family.
Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) instituted the concept of celebrating the new year in 2000 BC, celebrated new year around the time of the vernal equinox, in mid-March. The early Roman calendar designated March 1 as the new year. The calendar had just ten months, beginning with March. That the new year once began with the month of March is still reflected in some of the names of the months. September through December, our ninth through twelfth months, were originally positioned as the seventh through tenth months (septem is Latin for “seven,” octo is “eight,” novem is “nine,” and decem is “ten.”)
The first time the new year was celebrated on January 1 was in Rome in 153 BC (In fact, the month of January did not even exist until around 700 BC, when the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, added the months of January and February.) The new year was moved from March to January because that was the beginning of the civil year, the month that the two newly elected Roman consuls (the highest officials in the Roman republic) began their one-year tenure. But this new year date was not always strictly and widely observed, and the new year was still sometimes celebrated on March 1.
In 46 BC Julius Caesar extended the year to 445 days (annus confusionis). The normal number of 355 days had already been increased by the addition of the ordinary 23 days, inserted after February 23. As many as 67 days, divided into two menses intercalares, were now interposed between November and December. This year thus consisted of 15 months. After this “year of confusion,” the new calendar really started. Since 153 BC, January 1 was the day new consuls in Rome took office and Romans had commonly used the name of the two consuls to identify a specific year in question. Thus, by officially making January 1 start the New Year, it simply lined up with the consular year. One proposed reason for this switch is that January is thought by most to have been named after the god of transitions and beginnings, Janus, during the reign of the second King of Rome, Numa Pompilius, who lived from 753–673 BC. Thus, it was naturally enough for the Romans to eventually decide to make the switch. However, whether this is the reason or not is very much up for debate. After Julius Caesar reformed the calendar in 46 BC as the Julian Calendar and was subsequently murdered, the Roman Senate voted to deify him on 1 January 42 BC, in honor of his life and his institution of the new rationalized calendar. Dates in March, coinciding with the March Equinox, the Solemnity of the Annunciation of Jesus Christ, or other Christian feasts were used throughout the Middle Ages as the first day of the new year, although their calendars nonetheless often continued to display the months in columns running from January to December.
In 567 AD, the Council of Tours abolished January 1 as the beginning of the year. At various times and in various places throughout medieval Christian Europe, the new year was celebrated on Dec. 25, the birth of Jesus; March 1; March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation; and Easter.
Among the seventh century pagans of Flanders and the Netherlands, it was the custom to exchange gifts on the first day of the new year. This custom was deplored by Saint Eligius (died 659 or 660), who warned the Flemish and Dutch: “(Do not) make vetulas, [little figures of the Old Woman], little deer or iotticos or set tables [for the house-elf, compare Puck] at night or exchange New Year gifts or supply superfluous drinks [another Yule custom].” However, on the date that European Christians celebrated the New Year, they exchanged Christmas presents because New Years’ Day fell within the twelve days of the Christmas season in the Western Christian liturgical calendar; the custom of exchanging Christmas gifts in a Christian context is traced back to the Biblical Magi who gave gifts to the Child Jesus.
In 1582, the Gregorian calendar reform restored January 1 as New Year’s Day. As Easter had drifted backward since the First Council of Nicaea endorsed the computation of Easter thirteen centuries back, when the new calendar was put in use, the error accumulated was corrected by a deletion of 10 days. The Julian calendar day Thursday, October 4, 1582, was followed by the first day of the Gregorian calendar, Friday, October 15, 1582 (the cycle of weekdays was not affected), so January 1 becomes ten days after the Winter Solstice. Although most Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar almost immediately, it was only gradually adopted among Protestant countries. The British, for example, did not adopt the reformed calendar until 1752. Until then, the British Empire — and their American colonies — still celebrated the new year in March.
Most nations of Western Europe officially adopted January 1st as New Year’s Day somewhat before they adopted the Gregorian Calendar. In Tudor England, New Years Day, along with Christmas Day and Twelfth Night, was celebrated as one of three main festivities among the twelve days of Christmastide. There, until the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752, the first day of the new year was the Western Christian Feast of the Annunciation, on March 25, also called “Lady Day”. Dates predicated on the year beginning on March 25 became known as Annunciation Style dates, while dates of the Gregorian Calendar commencing on January 1 were distinguished as Circumcision Style dates, because this was the date of the Feast of the Circumcision, the observed memorial of the eighth day of Jesus Christ’s life after his birth, counted from the latter’s observation on Christmas, December 25. Pope Gregory christened January 1 as the beginning of the new year according to his reform of the Catholic Liturgical Calendar.
January 1 represents the fresh start of a new year after a period of remembrance of the passing year, including on radio, television, and in newspapers, which starts in early December in countries around the world. Publications have year-end articles that review the changes during the previous year. In some cases publications may set their entire year work alight in hope that the smoke emitted from the flame brings new life to the company. There are also articles on planned or expected changes in the coming year.
This day is traditionally a religious feast, but since the 1900s has also become an occasion to celebrate the night of December 31, called New Year’s Eve. There are fireworks at midnight at the moment the new year arrives (a major one is in Sydney, Australia). Watchnight services are also still observed by many.
On New Year’s Day, people in certain countries gather on beaches and run into the water to celebrate the new year. In Canada, the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Netherlands this is very popular. These events are sometimes known as polar bear plunges, and are sometimes organized by groups to raise money for charity. Polar Bear Clubs in many Northern Hemisphere cities near bodies of water, have a tradition of holding organized plunges on New Year’s Day.
In the United States, January 1 is the traditional date for many post-season college football bowl games, which are usually accompanied by parades and other activities to celebrate the events.
A common image used, often as an editorial cartoon, is that of an incarnation of Father Time (or the “Old Year”) wearing a sash across his chest with the previous year printed on it passing on his duties to the Baby New Year (or the “New Year”), an infant wearing a sash with the new year printed on it.
Babies born on New Year’s Day are commonly called New Year babies. Hospitals, such as the Dyersburg Regional Medical Center in the US, give out prizes to the first baby born in that hospital in the new year. These prizes are often donated by local businesses. Prizes may include various baby-related items such as baby formula, baby blankets, diapers, and gift certificates to stores which specialize in baby-related merchandise.
In Thailand, two series of New Year’s stamps are released annually in mid-November. The issues for New Year 2017 feature paintings of flowers associated with Her Majesty Queen Sirikit. Issued on November 15, 2016, the “first series” (given the issue number TH-1113 by Thailand Post) included four different designs all denominated in the domestic first class postage rate of 3 baht. The “second series” was released the same day and includes two different 15-baht designs, the international post card rate. All six stamps were printed by T.K.S. Technologies Public Company Limited of Thailand and were produced in mini-sheets of ten stamps for each design.
While there was a single commemorative released by Thailand Post on December 1, it appears that the planned release for His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 70th year of reign — scheduled to be released on what would have been his 89th birthday — was canceled and no further stamps have yet been issued by Thailand. The Kingdom remains in deep mourning over the October 13 passing of His Majesty; the mourning period for government and and other officials and employees is set for an entire year. No schedule for new stamps has been announced.