An image of a Chinese temple, surrounding by the forest, with fireworks in the background.

How Different Traditions Commemorate the Coming of a New Year

Celebrating the coming of the new year is universal, but not all are similar. Happening days or months after January 1st, traditions of different countries and beliefs welcome their new year and are deeply rooted in history and culture.

 

Celebrating the coming of the new year is a universal event. No religion or culture is left out. All have their own New Year’s traditions. It is a time where family and friends come together, even sharing the occasion with their neighbours. People all over the world welcome the new year with open arms, hoping for a better year that is rich and prosperous.

Symbolically, it is where people leave the past and look to the future.

In different cultures around the world, people hold celebrations that have been around for thousands of years. That is just as long as the declaration of January 1st becoming the first day of the New Year.

 

Chinese New Year

A photograph of a Chinese temple decorated with rows of red lanterns and red banners.
image source: nairaland.com

Chinese New Year is the most important holiday in China.

Based on the Chinese lunar calendar, it honors the household and heavenly deities and ancestors. Families are brought together, old and young, for bountiful feasts and celebrations.

Although the Gregorian calendar celebrates the New Year, China continues the tradition. It is celebrated between January 21st and February 20th, and lasts for 15 days.

The ancient lunar calendar is a religious and social guide that lived through the dynasties. Also, there is never a set calendar. It resets according to which emperor held power, varying from region to region. This is according to the lunar phases, solar solstices and equinoxes. Yin and Yang, principles that make the a harmonious world, set the calendar as well.

The Story of the Beginning

A mythical beast, Nian, ate livestock, crops and people on the eve of the new year. A wise old man discovered Nian was afraid of the color red and loud noises. People began to put red lanterns and red scrolls on their windows and doors, which stopped Nian from coming inside. They crackled bamboo to scare Nian away.

The beast never showed again.

Pre-Chinese New Year Prepations

The Laba Festival, held on the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month, marks the beginning of the Spring Festival. People give sacrifices to their ancestors, pray to heaven and earth for a good harvest and luck for the family. As well, it is the day when Sakyamuni realized the truth and became the Buddha.

Sakyamuni, a prince of ancient northern India, could not bear the suffering of local people from illness and the Brahman. He left his wealthy lifestyle to seek enlightenment. After six years of hardship and self-torture, he found the truth about Buddhism while sitting under the Bodhi tree. In those six years, all he ate was rice. Eating Laba Congee, a porridge of rice, beans, dried nuts, bean curd and meat, commemorates Buddha’s enlightenment.

The Little Year, or the Festival of the Kitchen God, occurs a week before the lunar New Year. The Kitchen God oversees the moral character of each household. Burning a paper picture of the Kitchen God sends the god’s spirit to Heaven, where he reports on the family’s conduct over the past year. Placing another image of the Kitchen God next to the stove welcomes the spirit back. During this time, people express their good wishes to say good-bye to the old year and welcome the new.

The dates of Little Year differ. In southern China, it is on the 24th day of the 12th lunar month. In northern China, it is on the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month.

The 24th day of the 12th lunar month is a winter-cleaning, thoroughly done in all households. Known as ‘sweeping the dust’, it represents a wish to put away old things and welcome the new.

Before Chinese New Year’s Eve, people buy New Year’s food and snacks, decorations, clothes and fireworks.

Chinese New Year’s Eve

People begin decorating their homes with red lanterns, red spring couplets, paper cuttings and New Year’s paintings. This keeps away evil and prays for blessings, longevity, health and peace.

The offering of sacrifices to the ancestors shows respect and piety. Placed in front of a shrine or grave are meat, wine, joss sheets and joss paper.

Families reunite for a ‘reunion dinner’, which is a must. Several generations come together, sit around a round table, enjoying food and each other’s company.

Accompanied with dinner is watching the CCTV New Year Gala between 8 P.M. and 12 A.M. It features traditional, folk and pop performances by China’s best singers, dancers and acrobats.

After the reunion dinner, parents give their children red envelopes. This gesture wishes the children health, growth and good studies for the new year. Inside the envelopes is lucky money. Red is China’s lucky colour. Therefore, money in red envelopes brings good luck.

Then, shousui commences. Meaning ‘to keep watch for the new year’, people used to stay awake all night. Now, they stay up till the midnight fireworks and firecracks die down.

Chinese New Year’s Day

Families enjoy the fireworks and firecracks all around China. The louder the crackers, the better and luckier it will be for farming and businesses.

On DAY ONE, people put on their new clothes and wish gougxi, meaning ‘greetings’ or ‘best wishes’, wishing each other luck and happiness. It is customary for younger generations to visit their elders and wish them health and longevity. As well, people watch the lion and dragon dances and attend Buddhist temples for traditional activities.

On DAY TWO, married daughters visit their parents’ home, bringing gifts and red envelopes to families and relatives. They also offer sacrifices to the God of Wealth for a luckier and prosperous year.

From DAYS THREE to SEVEN, people visit relatives and friends, some even visit their tombs. However, others see it as bad luck to be outside on the third day, as evil spirits roam around. This is also when people sweep their homes. Sweeping on the first and second days means sweeping away good luck from the celebrations.

DAY EIGHT is when people return to work. Eight is the luckiest number in China. Businesses like to open on the eighth day of the lunar year.

On DAY 15 is the Lantern Festival. It marks the end of Spring Festival celebrations. People send glowing lanterns into the sky. Some release them onto the sea, rivers or adrift in lakes.

 

Nowruz – Persian/Iranian New Year

A photograph of all seven items in the 'haft-seen', with a mirror, goldfish, Qur'an, and lit candle added.
image source: thestar.com

Between generations and within families, Nowruz promotes the value of people and solidarity.

Meaning ‘new day’, it falls on the first day of Spring and lasts for two weeks.

The Iranian calendar is a solar calendar. Therefore, the Earth’s movements around the sun determine the calendar.

The first day starts with the vernal equinox. This is when the sun is exactly above the equator, day and night are of equal length, and the sun’s annual pathway and celestial equator intersect.

This is not, however, a solely Iranian celebration. It is celebrated universally for new beginnings and prosperity. It welcomes the future and sheds away the past, done by deep cleaning of homes and closets and buying new clothes.

In 2010, the United Nations (U.N.) recognized Nowruz as an international holiday.

Background Infromation on Nowruz

Nowruz dates from around 3000 years ago. It is deeply rooted in Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion that predates Christianity and Islam. Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions in existence. However, the borders of Iran do not confine Nowruz. It is celebrated by non-Iranians around the world.

After the 1979 revolution, Persia became the Islamic Republic of Iran. The new government tried to decrease the level of Nowruz celebrations. Its pre-Islamic roots meant for its removal. A future without Nowruz resulted in a furious pushback that could not be ignored.

Deeply embedded in Persian culture, it continues to be loved and universally celebrated.

Preparations for Nowruz

Preparations start three weeks before the vernal equinox.

A very serious spring cleaning gets rid of unnecessary clutter and grime to start fresh in the new year.

Families leave a space for a haft-seen, items that symbolize a different hope for the new year. According to tradition, these seven items are mandatory:

  • sabzeh: a sprout of grass that grows in the weeks leading to the holiday that absorbs the negative energy in each home. It is for birth and renewal.
  • senjed: dried food, ideally from the lotus tree, is for love.
  • sib: apples for beauty and health.
  • seer: garlic for medication and taking care of oneself.
  • samanu: vinegar for the patience and wisdom that comes with aging.
  • sumae: crushed sour red berries (a Persian spice) for the sunrise of a new day.

Some include a mirror, symbolizing reflection, or the Qur’an or poetry books for education and enlightenment.

Chaharsharb Soori (‘Red Wednesday’) is on the last Wednesday of the year. Set up in public places, people leap over bonfire flames as a cleansing ritual. The ritual allows you to forgive others, forget your resentments and have a fresh start into the new year.

In Zoroastrianism, light and fire are essential elements for sustaining life, a wish for enlightenment and happiness.

Welcoming the New Year

The new year is welcomed with clean homes and new clothes. People visit families, friends and neighbors, sharing meals and hosting parties.

Among the main dishes are Subzi Pollo Maki (fried fish with rice filled with green herbs), Dolmeh Barg (cooked meat and rice rolled in grape leaves) and Fesenjan (a meat stew, of chicken or duck, in pomegranate and walnut sauce). For the desserts, it includes baqlava (flakey pastry sweetened with rosewater) and naan bereng (cookies made from rice flour).

The most important aspect of the food is that it is shared with family, friends and neighbours.

On the 13th day, families take the sabzeh from the haft-seen to a natural body of water. Placing it in the water, they let it float away. This releases the old and negative energy, and welcomes the new.

Additionally, on the 13th day, families gather at their oldest family member’s home to pay their respects. Children walk up to homes and bang on cooking pots with spoons. They will not stop until someone comes out and puts something sweet inside the pot.

 

Rosh Hashanah

A photograph of a Jewish man sounding the shofar, with many Jews surrounding him as they head to and from the temple.
image source: newsweek.com

Meaning ‘head of the year’ or ‘first of the year’, Rosh Hahanah is one of the holiest days in Judaism.

It begins on the first day of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, and ends on the second day of Tishrei. Usually, this falls during September or October.

As well as commemorating the creation of the world, it brings a 10-day period of self-examination and patience: the 10 Days of Awe. Also known as the Day of Judgement, God judges all creatures, whether they will live or die in the coming year. At the same, each Jew reflects on their relationship with God.

During the Days of Aw, God writes the names of the righteous in the ‘book of life’ and condemns the wicked to death on Rosh Hashanah. If someone is between the two categories, they have until Yom Kippur to perform teshuvah or repentence. Many consider Rosh Hashanah and its surrounding days as a time for prayer, good deeds, reflecting on past mistakes and making amends with others.

According to Jewish scripture, there is a similar month and day to Rosh Hashanah, but it does not share the same name. In the biblical passage Leviticus (23:24-25), God told Moses: “Say to the Israelites: ‘On the first day of the seventh month you are to have a day of sabbath rest, a sacred assembly commemorated with trumpet blasts.  Do no regular work, but present a food offering to the Lord.’” This is similar to how Rosh Hashanah is celebrated. 

The earliest reference to Rosh Hashanah is from a Jewish legal text, the Mishnah, dating to 200 A.D.

Traditions of Rosh Hashanah

Observers of Rosh Hashanah greet one another with a Hebrew phrase ‘shana tova’ or ‘l’shana tova’, meaning ‘good year’ or ‘for a good year’.

A ‘shofar’ is a trumpet made from a ram or kosher animal’s horn, regularly sounded around synagogues. Sounding the shofar is more of a commandment than a tradition. It must be done every morning of Rosh Hashanah, unless it falls on the Sabbath. Many interpret it as a call to repent of sins and seek forgiveness from God. Moreover, it is a reminder to Jews that God is their King.

An important tradition is lighting candles in the evening. Women and girls in the family light the candles at different times, before sundown on Tishrei 1 and after nightfall on Tishrei 2. The lit candles welcome the Jewish holidays with warmth and light.

Tashlich is, symbolically, casting aware sins in a body of water. Following prayers, Jews throw bread into the water or shake out the corners of their clothing.

Among the traditions is to eat round challah bread. The circular shape symbolized the natural circle of life and the crown of God. Raisins added to the dough means a sweet new year, as well as dipping the bread in honey, not salt. Apples represent the same. Eating apples is said to originate with Askhenazi Jews in Europe, who use the fall fruit in their new year’s meals. Sometimes, there are fish heads served and eaten. Due to the holiday’s meaning ‘head of the year’, it is for hope that the year will be as bountiful as the fish in the sea.

Work is prohibited during Rosh Hashanah. Many attend special services at their synagogues and then celebrate with festive means.

 

Vaisakhi – The Sikh New Year Festival

A photograph of the Viasakhi parade, where five men dressed as the 'Beloved Five' walk the streets, leading the procession.
image source: expressandstar.com

Vaiskhi marks the start of the Punjabi New Year. It is celebrated on the 13th or 14th of April every year. Starting at a harvest festival in Punjab in northern India, it now also celebrates the year 1699. 1699 is the year Sikhism became a collective faith.

Vaisakhi promotes justice and equality and the creation of a more equal and just society. Moreover, it is an opportunity for Punjab farmers to give thanks for a plentiful harvest and pray for another in the coming year.

Members wear the five articles of faith:

  • kesh, the practice of not cutting hair and daily meditation.
  • kacchera, a specific type of undergarment.
  • kongha, a small wooden comb kept in the hair.
  • koda, an iron bracelet.
  • kirpan, a curved sword.

Guru Gobind Singh and the Five Sikhs

In 1699, Sikhs all over Punjab gathered to celebrate the local harvest festival.

Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth guru, came out of his tent while carrying his sword. He asked everyone who was prepared to give their life for their religion. A young man stepped forward and went into the tent with the guru. The guru came out of the tent, alone, with his sword covered in blood. He asked for another devotee willing to sacrifice their life for their religion.

This occurred four times until five Sikhs went into the tent.

Everyone worried about the sudden fate of the five men.

At the same time, all five men came out of the tent, alive and unharmed, wearing turbans. They became known as the Panj Piare (‘Beloved Five’).

The guru baptized the five men into the Khalsa, a purified and reconstituted Sikh community that he initiated. It denotes the body of initiated Sikhs and the community of all Sikhs.

The Panj Piare became the first members of the Khalsa.

Traditions of Vaisakhi

It begins with Siikhs visiting the gurdwara, a place of worship. Then, people begin a day of traditions and celebration. They wear colorful, traditional clothing. As well, they take part in the parades in the streets, known as nagari kirtans. ‘Nagar’ means ‘town’ and ‘kirtan’ means ‘singing of hymns from the Guru Grouth Sahib (the Sikh Holy Book)’. During the parades, there is a lot of singing, dancing and chanting.

Langar is the tradition of giving out free food. Everyone in the community, rich and poor, comes together and shares a meal.

Bhangra is a traditional folk dance performed to the rhythm of a dhol (a type of drum). Dating to the 14th century, farmers danced the bhangra to celebrate their harvest. In the end, it became part of the celebrations.

Many Sikhs choose Vaisakhi to be baptized into the Khalsa.

Normally, the big celebrations take place in the city of Anandpur Sahib in Punjab. It is where Guru Gobind Singh established the Khalsa.

 

The Origin of January 1st

A photograph of people in New York celebrating the New Year with confetti surrounding them.
image source: usatoday.com

With many traditions following the lunar and solar calender, it does leave the question of how January 1st became the universal New Year’s Day.

Celebrating the arrival of the new year started close to 4000 years ago in ancient Babylonia. The years evolved from there, but it was not until the Roman Empire that there was a much needed change.

In the early Roman calendar, there were ten months and 304 days, said to be have been created by Romulus in the eighth century B.C.E. Each new year began on the vernal equinox. Therefore, the Romans followed a solar calendar.

King Numa Pompilius added the months Januvarius and Februarias.

Over the centuries, the Roman calender fell out of sync with the sun.

In 46 B.C.E., Emperor Julius Caesar added 90 days to the Roman calender for that year only. It was an attempt to realign the calendar with the sun. Thus came the introduction to the Julian calendar, which closely resembles the Gregorian calendar. However, that was not the first of Caesar’s changes. He declared the first day of Januvarius to be the first day of the year. It honored Janus, the Roman God of Beginnings and the month’s namesake. Janus’s two faces allowed him to look into the past and the future.

Further evolution of the calendar led to January 1st becoming a universal New Year’s Day with its own traditions.

 

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

An image of a Chinese temple, surrounding by the forest, with fireworks in the background.
image source: ancient-origins.com

Celebrating the coming of the new year extends to every religion and culture. It gives time to reflect on one’s past, and then, to be ready for a new start.

Moreover, the different new year traditions explored give deeper insight into the traditions of religions and cultures around the world. It shows that every aspect of their celebration, no matter how small, has significance towards the coming year. As well, it expresses how these different traditions, and more, continue to follow the path of their ancestors. Honoring them through sacrifice and offerings, and in following the ways of the past, means that the modern age has not forgotten its roots. As a result, the traditions of the ancient past stay alive, remembering their importance that made them.

However, due to the rise in COVID infections in late 2022, many countries canceled their New Year’s celebrations. Parades and social gatherings are put to a stop. People will now stay in their homes, visiting those close to them, and following the traditions they choose to follow.

In light of everyone’s safety, it is the best reassurance that the new year will be prosperous with the coming advancements.

 

“To the old, long life and treasure; to the young, all health and pleasure.”

-Ben Johnson, English playwright.

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