A brand New Year has just started as I write this article and glance at the almost pristine calendar on my wall and on my desk and prepare to bin last year’s calendar – full of scribbled and scratched out notes, things done and not done, promises kept and not kept. I turn the pages and totally inadvertently, review the year that has just gone out of the door. ‘I mustn’t repeat my errors this year. I must be more focused’ I tell myself. Yet, I do not believe in making resolutions on a New Year’s Eve – I don’t think that I have ever done it, consciously. Yet here I am, trying to define a few rules that I would try to follow. As, I am certain, billions of other people have done over the last two weeks – publicly or privately.

Poets and writers over the centuries had a special thing for the last day of a year – some of the best poems were written about them – the dying year that refuses to leave, clinging on to the doorstep, the bright New Year that stands on the threshold with the promise of better tomorrows. The Mortal refuses to listen to the promises, arguing that the year that has gone by came in the same say, and did not keep its promises. Someplace else, a thrush sings out in a bleak winter landscape, singing of ‘some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware.’ Lord Tennyson urged the wild bells to ring in celebration – for the old year is dying and with it will die all the disappointments and failures and grief.

This is probably the true spirit of celebrating New Year in any society, right across the globe – on one particular day in the year, now defined by the Gregorian calendar, we make an effort to put the past behind and look forward to the days that are to come. It is interesting to note that in many ancient agricultural societies, the harvest signaled the end of the year. What was sown earlier was reaped; the crops were the results of the toil of the year. After the harvest would come the time to prepare the earth again for next year’s bounty. In a lot of places in India, for instance, the last day of the month ‘Poush’, the month for harvesting the traditional crops, marks the end of a year. In some countries it is the vernal equinox that heralds the arrival of spring and things reborn that was considered the beginning of a new year. The ancient Romans began each year in spring by making promises to the god Janus, the two-faced god who looks backward into the old year and forward into the new. The Persian New Year, called Nowruz, is a 13-day spring festival that reaches far back into antiquity, and many of the traditions associated with it are still celebrated in Iran and several Middle Eastern countries. The Chinese New Year , celebrated in between end January and February, marks the victory over an evil bloodthirsty creature called Nian that preyed on people. The villagers, the story goes, took to decorating their homes with red trimmings, burning bamboo and making loud noises to scare off the craven beast. The bright colors and lights associated with scaring off Nian eventually became integrated into New Year celebrations - the impressive colorful processions with dragons and fireworks mark the beginning of New Year in many a country in South East Asia.

Think of the most famous New Year celebrations today in Time Square, Champs Elysées, Trafalgar Square, Embankment, Sydney Harbour and hundreds of other cities all over the world - at the stroke of midnight the sky lights up with incredible fireworks, witnessed every year by millions of people. Ever wondered where this custom came from? I did a bit of research and I think it might have come from the Hogmany festival in Scotland that definitely has pagan origins. In the pagan winter celebrations, fire symbolized the newly resurgent sun coming back to the land, and was believed to ward off evil spirits dwelling in the darkness. Fires still play a major part in Hogmanay celebrations, with torchlight processions, bonfires and fireworks. And it continues today, filtered through the Ages of Reason, Enlightment and many others, not only in Scotland but right across the globe.

Ever wondered why Anglo-Saxon countries observed the ‘first footing’ for a very long time and probably still do? The first person to cross a home's threshold after midnight on New Year's Eve was believed to determine the homeowner's luck for the New Year. The ideal visitor is a dark haired man or someone with a coal scuttle. A strange custom which may date back to 8th century Scotland invaded by fair-haired Vikings - a blond visitor was not a good omen for the household. Intriguing, isn’t it? The Britons actually designated a dark haired person to cross the threshold on the stroke of midnight. They had to come in through the front door and leave through another one. They opened their doors and windows at midnight too to help the old year go out and New Year come in.

Almost all countries in the world have their specific rituals on the New Year’s Eve, with two predominant traits – symbolically getting rid of the old year and enticing the New Year to bring luck and prosperity. Italians used to break old glassware and throw old things out of the window and eat a special meal of lentils and greasy sausage that is supposed to bring prosperity. ‘Forget the year’ parties in Japan bid farewell to the worries and concerns of the year gone by and prepare for new beginnings. The Spanish tradition consists of eating 12 grapes with each stroke of midnight for good luck. In the Scandinavian countries an almond is hidden inside the traditional rice pudding which will bring good luck to the finder. The same concept is used in the traditional Greek Vassilopitta and the French Galette des Rois. In almost all countries in Asia people wear new clothes on the first day of the New Year and pray to their Gods to bring good luck and fortune.

There are numerous superstitions associated with New Year’s Eve –strict do’s and don’ts that need to be respected to ensure good luck, prosperity, fortune and happiness in the New Year. In certain parts on America housewives used to refrain from sweeping or washing clothes on New Year’s Eve to prevent good luck from being swept or washed away. Pockets should not be empty nor should precious stuff leave the home on New Year’s Eve. A hearty and healthy meal on New Year’s Eve will ensure the same throughout the year. A mirror accidentally broken on New Year’s Eve will certainly bring bad luck. In many Asian countries people are recommended to visit their workplaces and do some token work on the first day of the New Year. The New Year is South East Asia often starts with a visit to the temple to pay respect to elders and ancestors.

I am in total disagreement with the New Year skeptics who see no point in celebrating something as banal as New Year – which arrives mechanically, after 365 or 366 days – a totally artificial and arbitrary diving line – whatever the nature of the calendar. But then, that is the logic of everything we celebrate – birthdays, anniversaries, religious festivals or the arrival of different seasons. What I do agree with is expressed beautifully by Helen Hunt Jackson and needs no comments:

“Only a night from old to new!
Never a night such changes brought.
The Old Year had its work to do;
No New Year miracles are wrought.
Only a night from old to new;
Only a sleep from night to morn.
The new is but the old come true;
Each sunrise sees a new year born.”



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