People all over the world celebrate the changing of one year to another with some sort of celebration marking the day. The Egyptians celebrated the new year when the Nile flooded (or reached it’s high water mark) in June or when Sirius rose). The Babylonian New Year was the first new moon after the spring Equinox, while Persians celebrate Nowruz on the equinox itself. (Neyrouz, the Coptic New Year, is near the fall equinox.)
The Celtic people mark the New Year at the end of the growing season, and the beginning of Winter (as the changeover from one day to another is at the end of one day, the new one starts at twilight.)
Chinese New Year begins at the new moon of the first month (after the winter solstice), and many other calendars are lunar, or solo-lunar: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year falls in Autumn, on the new moon; and as most other Semitic Calendars, it marks the beginning of the growing season in the Near East. (The Hebrew liturgical calendar starts in Spring.) Ethiopian New Year is called Enkutatash (and takes place around September 11th). But because of the way that the Islamic calendar allows observances to progress through the seasons, Hijri, the first day of Muharran, can be any point in the year.
Many calendars begin in spring, for example Thai Songkran, April 13-15, Vietnamese Tết Nguyên Đán, and Tibetan Losar. In India the assorted new years include Nava Varsha, Ugadi, Chithrai Vishu,and Gudi Padwa, these generally are in the month following the spring equinox.
No one should try to suggest calendars for “Native Americans” or “Africans” or other large areas, as calendars were set locally until more universal calendars were imposed by the spreading of empire. This is probably why the common use of the Roman Calendar has become ubiquitous, as Romans got most of Europe using it, then economic interests spread it to the rest of the world with colonization. The Julian calendar had New Year at the Spring Equinox (for most of the Middle Ages), but the Gregorian Calendar moved it to January 1st, in 1582 (midwinter in the Northern Hemisphere). Interestingly, the move of New Years celebrations to January started in the Roman calendar because it was tradition to elect new Consuls on New Years Day, and as the empire expanded, a mid March election didn’t allow enough time for the new consuls to march out to the frontiers; so rather than changing the Election Day tradition, they moved New Years itself to January, to give them plenty of time to get out to where ever they were conquering new people.
But whenever the New Year is Celebrated, most cultures have traditional activities to promote good luck for the upcoming year. As a liminal time, it is perfect for all forms of divination, and also for creating a new pattern for changes desired. “As you begin, you move forward.” One cleans or gets rid of things symbolic of what you don’t want. In Japan bells are rung 108 times as a cleansing ritual. This may be the reason old furniture is defenestrated in South Africa. Most places try to start with clean spaces and new clothes.
Noise (made many ways from drums, horns, guns, bells, or fireworks, to banging hard bread against the house in Ireland to breaking chipped china against friends doors in Denmark) is meant to scare off bad spirits, whereas tossing coins into water may be meant to placate them. Burning trash, or effigies (whether of politicians or beings symbolic of cold and other unwanted influences like Jack Straw) is also a way to encourage the reality to imitate the symbolic action. Some are even careful to not take anything out on New Years Day, even the garbage, but only bring things in. Finish any projects you can, pay off bills to be debt free in the new year.
In order to attract wealth, one symbolizes having it by putting money in ones pockets, shoes, paying off debts before the end of the year where possible, and eating round things such as beans that symbolize coins. Greens also symbolize money. Various beans are thought lucky in different parts of the world, in the US Black Eyed Peas are the most commonly eaten, often with rice which also symbolizes wealth. Lentil soup is eaten as lentils look like coins, fish and pork are thought lucky, but not chickens or turkey, as they must scratch in the dirt for their food, whereas pigs “move forward” when they root for their dinner, and fish can only swim forward (no lobster or crab). Noodles signify longevity, and grains abundance. Also- eat lots of sweet foods to make your year sweet.
Anything you want more of, introduce it as early and often as you can: kiss the person you want to kiss, carry a suitcase around your house if you wish to travel, Eat a LOT (7, 9 or 12 meals), but leave a bit on your plate to honour the ancestors. Drink, it that’s what you like. Use color symbolism in your clothing: red to attract passionate love, green for luck, gold for prosperity, blue for improved health, pink for love, white for peace, black is supposed to be bad luck. Exchanging gifts at New Year was where the custom of gifts at Christmas originated. In Persia (whose new year was in the spring) they exchanged eggs.
So use your knowledge of symbolism to aim the energy of the upcoming year in the direction you want it to go
New Year’s Eve is a liminal time- a great time to read the omens for the upcoming year. In Scotland they call it Hogmanay, and really get into the traditions! They have bonfires, and make sure their houses are clean for the new year- they call it “redding”. There was also a technique of divination from the ashes when cleaning the chimney- I’d love to learn that technique! After that comes “saining”, blessing everything with holy water from a local stream. After the blessing with water, the woman of the house was supposed to go from room to room with a smoldering juniper branch, filling the house with purifying smoke.
“First Footing” is a custom whereby whoever first enters your house is supposed to predict whether you’ll have good or bad luck during the year. A practical people, the Scots are known for prearranging the right sort of person to arrive. The best luck comes from a dark haired man, bringing food, drink and fuel with him, (right food first across the threshold, of course!) for which he is rewarded with money and drinks. Some young dark haired men will set up a route to hit as many houses as they can during the wee hours of the first! Women and redheads are unlucky portents.
This is a grand night in Scotland with different towns coming up with different foolhardy practices, from burning the claive (a tar soaked barrel), to dressing like Vikings (as at Uphellya), Swinging around heavy flaming balls (extreme fire-spinning), or jumping in freezing water for charity (then warming up by a bonfire).
Elsewhere in the world, others do slightly less dangerous good luck rituals, like jumping off chairs at midnight, or (obsolete) throwing chipped crockery at your friends doors- the more broken crockery around your door in the morning, the better), or stuffing 12 grapes in your mouth in Spain, or kissing your sweetheart. (In Venice there’s a Kiss-a-thon in St. Mark’s Square.)
Have fun, and remember, spend the time during the crossing from one year to the next as you want the next year to go.
The Winter Solstice 5:23 PM EST
What can we say about the Solstice? Due to the angle at which the earth spins, days get longer and shorter, and the Solstice is the tipping point where (in the Northern Hemisphere) they start getting longer again, and most of us are pretty happy about it!
Whether you live in a pre-industrial culture or one steeped in scientific explanation, as we have to deal with shorter days, it’s hard not to imagine what would happen if they just kept getting shorter until there was no daylight at all. Even when you are confident that it’s coming, it’s wonderful to not need the artificial light (electrical or flame) as much, and know that it will also start getting warmer, and crops will grow again. (Even in the modern world we are mostly living on the previous year’s stored harvest.)
For those sensitive to such things, the Winter season (from November to February) is a time when many spirits seem to have more access to our world- ancestral spirits and other ghosts, the Wild Hunt, and the Good Neighbors wander the nights and visit human homes, leaving blessings, or sometimes terror in their wake. The tradition of Ghost Stories at Christmas goes back much farther than Dickens. If you haven’t worked out how to be blessed by passing spirits, or are simply very sensitive, it can be exhausting (especially in a culture where on top of dealing with them, you have to come up with explanations that will satisfy the unbelievers.)
So many cultures have solstice celebrations that I cannot possibly list them all, but they include the Births of the Uncoquered Sun, Horus, Mithras, Christ, Frey, Pryderi, Persephone, Dionysus, and King Arthur. In Japan, Amaterasu comes out of her cave. In the Roman Saturnalia this was the day they celebrated Divalia- to the Goddess of Silence.
A Hopi and Zuni celebrate Soyal, Hindus have begun celebrating Pancha Ganapati, Karachun is a Slavic holiday, Persians celebrated Mithras, Feast of Aset (Egyptian), Capac Raymi (Incan), Beiwe/Rozhanitsa (Saami), Shabe-Yalda (Zoroastrian), Druids celebrated Alban Arthuan. (and remember, in the Southern Hemisphere, the Summer Solstice celebrations are going on.) Wiccans celebrate the dominion of the Horned God rather than the Lady, or the Holly King (over the Oak King), or the Crone rather than the Maiden.
Christians have included many customs over the centuries that seem similar to those of other cultures celebrating the Solstice and the returning of the light. There’s often fireworks or ringing bells and making other noises, fires, dancing and masks, including Hoydening, Mumping, and Burning the Clocks.
Whatever way you celebrate- have a blessed holiday!
While discussing the calendar before Christianity came to England, the Venerable Bede wrote in the 725 ce:
” Et ipsam noctem nunc nobis sacrosanctam, tunc gentili vocabulo Modranicht, id est, matrum noctem appellabant: ob causam et suspicamur ceremoniarum, quas in ea pervigiles agebant.” De temporum ratione The Reckoning of Time.
“That same night, which we so sacred, they used to call the term Pagan Modranecht, namely, “the night of the mothers”, because (we suspect) the ceremonies were named after him.”
Pope Gregory suggested that the missionaries to England should hold Christian feasts on the dates and in the same places (reconsecrated as Churches) where the heathen had been accustomed to have their pagan feast, and in this way to use their habits to bring them over to Christianity.
Mothernight, as with so many other heathen customs, are pieced together from the very few bits and pieces that survive, and we know very little about what was really practiced. Those who recorded the history were more interested in having those customs forgotten than preserving them. It is generally thought that the Mothers to whom Bede referred are similar to the Idisi, Norse Disir, or Germanic Matres and Matronae (associated by some with the Norns, or by others to female ancestors). The date is suspected to be the Winter Solstice, (or as I heard it the eve of the Solstice). They may be also be associated with the night-flying “Good Ladies” who visited homes accepting offerings and giving blessings or the troops lead by Mother Perchta, or Diana, who was mentioned by Bishops in the 9th century as being a fallacy to which women still clung.
Others interpret Bede’s description as meaning that Mother Night is the celebration before Christmas- or Christmas Eve, which allowed them to re-dress it as a celebration of Christ’s mother. Other’s equate it with Disting, the feast of the Disir which many Heathen’s celebrate in January- some conflating it with Candlemas/Imbolc.
The long and short of it is that modern Heathens must create whatever ceremonies and rites that seem good to them to reflect the relationship that exists between them and their gods, as there are few surviving records of their earlier practices.
Io, Saturnalia! (it means Hail Saturnalia, and it made my day when I read that it was pronounced Yo.)
Saturnalia was the big celebratory holiday in the Roman Calendar where there were a LOT of holidays. Saturnalia started as a feast of Saturn on December 17th, but was then extended to three days, then to seven. (Sound familiar?)
It was similar to the Greek Kronia, and all work was suspended, slaves were given greater license, and morality was loosened. I think it would remind us of Mardi Gras.
Christmas in early Rome was probably celebrated during this season so that Christians could participate in the general joy and festive spirit. Gifts were not a general part of Saturnalia- they were given at New Years, when the house would be decorated with greenery. However at the end of Saturnalia gifts of candles, wax figurines, wax fruit etc. were given.