New Year’s Day – Celebrating whenever, wherever and however


For many Minnesotans, the media, shopping centers, nonprofit fundraisers and tax collectors it’s common knowledge that January 1 marks the first day of the year – Sunday we will wake up in a world in which it’s 2012 – even in Samoa.  Or is it?

Last year, writing about Chinese New Year, I got entranced with our myopic view of the calendar which is based on the narrow premise that the Gregorian calendar dictates some sort of global order that rules the happenings of humankind.

Still, many Minnesota residents will tell a different and wonderful story of when and how the turn of the calendar is celebrated in their culture.

As one way of expanding my own understanding of the world in which we live, I decided to poke around to capture the barest scraps of information about the advent of the new year around this very large planet. Though this is far too skimpy a search, a resolution for 2012 (Gregorian calendar) is to pay more attention to the many faces of the new year.

New Year’s Day – A moveable feast. As the rules dictate, I started with what I know – the Gregorian Calendar, the one that says that New Year’s Day falls on January 1. My first web hit was the story of how the Brits set the pace for Samoa’s recent calendar realignment when, in 1752, they tweaked the calendar ordered by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582; it seems they cut out eleven days – days that had accrued when Great Britain stuck with the Julian calendar. We do the same thing now when, on February 29, 2012, we make our quadrennial effort to align the solar and Gregorian calendars – as it turns out the Gregorian calendar is off by 26 seconds, meaning that there is a full day’s discrepancy between the two every 3,323 years.

Though this doesn’t relate to cultural mores, it’s a fun story in its own right. Besides, it’s a good reminder that any calendar is a human take on a cosmic reality.

Back to the ways in which we go about acknowledging the calendar shift in wondrously different ways. The options are myriad and randomly chosen simply because of their different spins on a common theme.

The Gregorian Calendar, and the Julian calendar on which it is based, are basically solar – except when it comes to the calculation of Easter which is related to the moon’s cycle around the earth.

Many calendars are what is known as the “lunisolar” calendar which, as the name suggests, is based on the phases of the moon and the solar year. One of the characteristics of the lunisolar year is that there are a whole number of months, normally twelve – except of course when there are thirteen.

The lunisolar calendar is the basis for the Hebrew, Buddhist, Hellenic, Hindu lunisolar, Burmese, Tibetan, Chinese, Vietnamese, Mongolian and Korean calendars, as was the Japanese calendar until 1873….wherein lies a tale.

The Islamic calendar is lunar, but not lunisolar because its date is related to the sun, but not the moon. Since the Islamic year is eleven or twelve days shorter than the Gregorian years the new years do not coincide. And then there’s the Irish calendar of times gone by – and thereby hands a whole other tale.

Though calendars of different cultures have vastly different histories and customs, virtually all cultures celebrate the passage of time with a significant day or days that mark the end of the old year and beginning of the new – a sort of rite of passage that rids the people of the past and anticipates what is yet to come.

An array of new year’s customs. Some glimpses of the various calendars and customs around the globe offer a sense of some universal themes that relate more to our common humanity than to the date on the calendar:

Sri Lanka: New year in Sri Lanka or the Sinhala new year, Aluth Avurudhu usually falls on April 13th or 14th. According to Sinhalese mythology, the new year begins when the sun moves from Meena Rashiya (the house of Aries) to Mesha Rashiya. It also marks the end of the harvest and coming of spring. In Sri Lanka, the flowers of spring, meticulous housecleaning, tributes to elders, new clothes, games, feasting and honored religious rituals mark the coming of the new year.

Ukraine. New Year, the only Slavic feast recognized at the state level in Ukraine, has been celebrated on January 1 since Emperor Peter I moved the official date to the Gregorian calendar with the advent of Christianity. Mummers are essential features of new year’s day along with St. Nicholas and his granddaughter, Snegurochka (Snow Maiden). Some Ukrainians have it both ways by celebrating Old New Year (January 13) and the post-Peter I new year on January 1.

Japan. Unlike China, Korea and Vietnam which celebrate the lunar calendar, the Japanese celebrate new year’s day on January 1. The rites and rituals are so rich that the new year actually begins well in advance with a festive new year’s eve known as Omisoka.  The stories of new year traditions in Japan are encyclopedic – some of my favorites are these:

– At midnight on December 31 Buddhist temples through the nation toll their bells 108 times to symbolize the human sins in Buddhist belief and to exorcise the 108 worldly desires of sense and feeling to which Japanese are prone.

– Poetry, including haiku (17 syllables) and renga (linked poetry) is also a part of the Japanese tradition. The poetry custom is particularly rich with ancient traditions, some of which pre-date the nation’s migration to the Gregorian calendar.

– My favorite among the plethora of Japanese new year’s traditions is the performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as a staple of the new year celebrations throughout Japan. The symphony was introduced to Japan by German prisoners of war during World War I. Because Germany and Japan were allies the frequent performances of the Ninth Symphony was intended to promote nationalism.

– The Japanese also celebrate the new year by recognizing a host of firsts – first sunrise, first trip to a shrine, first exchange of letters, first tea ceremony, even first shopping sale of the year (who knew WalMart was promoting a Japanese custom!)
Ecuador.  Ecuadoreans celebrate new year’s eve and new year’s day with a unique tradition that focuses on the old year passing. Dummies representing human figures, stuffed with paper, sawdust, wood – and firecrackers – are publicly displayed before they are set afire.  The dummies represent human figures including politicians, even terrorist s– their destruction represents the end of the old year.

Sweden. Minnesotans of Swedish heritage are no doubt empathizing with their relatives back home. Traditionally, the Swedes celebrate the new year with a grand seafood feast on new year’s eve. This year’s shortage of shrimp and crayfish means hard times for the Swedes who will have to opt for lobster; anticipating the dearth of shrimp and crayfish Swedish lobstermen wisely netted large quantities of lobster early in the season – the delicacies have been waiting on ice for the propitious moment. One might assume the Swedes will bear up with their legendary strength of character.

Mexico. Rich traditions, particularly associated with the new year, are endemic to Mexico. One custom is Mexican pan dulce, a sweet bread in which a coin is baked. When the pan dulce is served at the bewitching hour the person who finds the coin is deemed to be the luckiest in the new year.

A unique Mexican custom is that on New Year’s Eve everyone has to eat one grape and make a wish at each click of the clock between twelve seconds of midnight. Each grape signifies good luck for one month of the new year.

Amidst the host of rich family, home, feasting and religious-oriented Mexican rituals is one that captures my attention – it has to do with the underwear chosen by Mexican women. If a woman wants love, she wears red; for financial success, she wars green; for good health, it’s white.


Korea. In Korea, where new year follows the lunar calendar, Seollal is the most important of the traditional holidays. It usually falls on the day of the second new moon after winter solstice; in the case of an “intercalary” eleventh or twelfth new year’s day falls on the day of the third new moon after the solstice. This won’t happen until 2033, so not to worry.

Koreans also celebrate Gregorian new year when, in 2012 and probably in the future, North Koreans will reflect on the death of their leader.

Poland. The Polish nation celebrates new year, also known as St. Sylvester’s Eve, on January 1. Legend has it that Pope Sylvester I caught a dragon named Leviathan who escaped and set out to demolish earth and heaven alike. The dragon was re-captured, the earth and heavens survived, and the people celebrate New Year’s Day as St. Sylvester’s Day. The Polish people carry on traditions such as smudging windows with tar and hiding pots that were left out to symbolize driving out the old and bringing in the new.

Cambodia. Following Buddhist customs, Khmer new year in Cambodia is celebrated for three days, usually beginning April 13 or 14, the end of the harvest. This coincides with the solar new year as it is celebrated in India, Thailand and other nations. The Khmer new year known as Chol Chnam Thmey in the Khmer language is one of Cambodia’s major holidays, a time when the Khmer people of Cambodia and Vietnam can rest from their labors and take time to enjoy three days of celebration.

Rosh Hashanah. Because of its universality Rosh Hashanah is not a national celebration but a time recognized as the Jewish new year by Jews and Samaritans regardless of geography.

Rosh Hashanah is a time of prayer, reflection and hearing the blasts of the shofar. Judgment day, when everyone’s deeds are assessed, is at the center of Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah occurs 163 days after the first day of Passover, meaning that the feast can fall between September 5 and October 5 on the Gregorian calendar. In 2012 Rosh Hashanah will occur at sunset September 16 until nightfall on September 18; this is Jewish Year 5773.

Rosh Hashanah is replete with beautiful ritual. Apples and honey, representing a sweet new year, are the best known foods of custom. The Rosh Hashanah seder is a feast that features dates, leeks, gourds and other foods mentioned in the Talmud

China.  Because I wrote extensively about Chinese new years customs last year, readers may wish to refer to that post. In 2012 the Year of the Dragon begins on January 23. People of Chinese heritage around the world will be celebrating telling and retelling the stories of Nian, the monster that terrorized the people of ancient China and the Jade Emperor of Heaven. Chinese new year is celebrated for fifteen days and is also known as the Spring Festival.

The stories are endless — the year is not. The universals are clear:

Every culture celebrates the new year with time-honored and meaningful customs; we all welcome the time to rid ourselves of the old and get on with the new; hope springs eternal!

Happy 2012!