Origins of Customs and Traditions of Celebrations

The whole range of celebration of the New Year's Day basically stems from the various ways ancient societies used to greet the new harvest seasons. In fact, it is the number of harvests, whether of fruit or grain, that determined how many New Years were observed. The origins of the customs that we think of as peculiarly associated with the celebration of the New Year, took roots in the ways the ancient peoples regarded the New Year. Likewise the other ancient societies in other parts of the world, the New Year festivities had been observed in our wild forests and plains by the native Indians. To the Creek Indians the ripening of the corn in July or August signified the termination of one year and the beginning of another. It was their customs to drape themselves with new clothes, replace the old interiors and households. 
The Iroquois, another native Indian tribe who inaugurated the new year in January, February or March with ceremonies emphasizing the expulsion of evil spirits. The customs of sporting disguise and masks, making noises and confessions were all practiced by them.

Symbolically, New Year signifies a renewal of life. Hence, the spirit of celebration for the regeneration, while discarding the old and worn out. The customs and practices, though modified through the centuries, have still their distinctive strains in the ways we welcome each onrushing year.

It was the Dutch, in their New Amsterdam settlement at mid-17th century, who originated the modern American New Year celebration. The New Year's Day was the most important holiday for the Dutch who were noted in all the colonies for their love of beer and wine. 

Given here are some instances of New Year's Day revelry with their historical trails:

The Mid-night cacophony

The idea of making deafening noise is to drive away the evil spirits who flocked to the living at this climactic season with a great wailing of horns and shouts and beating of drums. This is why at the stroke of midnight we hear the deafening cacophony of sirens, car horns, boat whistles, party horns, church bells, drums, pots and pans - anything that serves the purpose of producing a devil chasing din. 

The Spectacular Parades

The popular Tournament of Roses Parade held on this day in Pasadena, CA, was started in 1886 by the Valley Hunt Club, whose members decorated their carriages with flowers, creating what was meant to be " an artistic celebration of the ripening of the oranges in California". In the afternoon athletic events were held. The city of Pasadena later relieved the club of sponsorship of the parade, and the city was in turn succeeded by the Tournament of Roses Association, which till date directs the activities. Gradually the flower-decked carriages gave way to floats that by parade rules can be covered only with fresh flowers.

Yet another annual attraction, the Rose Bowl football game, became part of the festivities in 1902. Although the Rose Bowl football game was first played as a part of the Tournament of Roses in 1902, it was replaced by Roman chariot races the following year. In 1916, the football game returned as the sports centerpiece of the festival.
The traditional and spectacular Mummers' Parade of Philadelphia owes its origin to the Christmas celebrations of the Swedes and the Englishmen who settled along the Delaware River.

The masked revelers among the Swedes saw to it that the festivities of the Christmas season lasted until the New Year. The English brought with them their ancient practice of mumming. This, in America, took the form of groups of men presenting costumed plays, going from house to house reciting their parts in expectation of money or some of the Christmas fare. It was since then the parade has been divided into three main sections: the fancy-dress division, the clown division, and the string bands.

Image of a Baby

The tradition of using a baby to signify the new year was begun in Greece around 600 BC. It was their tradition at that time to celebrate their god of wine, Dionysus, by parading a baby in a basket, representing the annual rebirth of that god as the spirit of fertility. Early Egyptians also used a baby as a symbol of rebirth.

Although the early Christians denounced the practice as pagan, the popularity of the baby as a symbol of rebirth forced the Church to reevaluate its position. The Church finally allowed its members to celebrate the new year with a baby, which was to symbolize the birth of the baby Jesus.

The use of an image of a baby with a New Years banner as a symbolic representation of the new year was brought to early America by the Germans. They had used the effigy since the fourteenth century.

The Booze Bash

Yet another familiar practice, though not quite encouraging. The unbridled drinking bash on the New Year's Eve, is also a secular leftover of a rite that was once religious in character. The original spirit has been a personal re-enacting of the chaotic world that existed before the ordered cosmos was created by God.

New Year Resolutions

In order to have a 'clean slate' on which to start the New Year, people in times past have made certain that they had all their borrowings cleared. Those were the days before such complexities as credit buying. The New Year resolutions, which we are so fond of, represent other efforts to make the year brand new. In fact, we often say that in the New Year we are "turning over a new leaf."

Early American observances

When they eventually lost control of New Amsterdam to the English for the last time in 1674, they had no trouble persuading the English to abandon their March 25 New Year and observe it on January 1. 
The principal customs of the day were visiting friends and exchanging gifts, to which the English added the turkey shoot. But in March 1773, the New York State legislature outlawed the firing of guns and explosions.


The Gatherings

The practice of visiting friends continued until the first years of this century. It was a gala time when everyone held open house and laid out enormous feasts for any one who should drop in, whether friend or stranger. To neglect this annual visit was a terrible sight, and the roads were thronged with carriages bearing the holiday-makers. Unfortunately in time the custom was abused; the distinction between privacy and sociability was ignored and troops of unwanted guests descended on the open houses, using them as eating and drinking stations. Politicians and those with an eye on the social ladder were said to have spread their blight over the purposes of the day. People began to send invitations to special guests for their own protection, and the old custom fell irretrievably into decline.

Thus the whole range of ideas of purgation, purifications, the confessing of sins, driving off demons, expulsion of evil out of the village and so on transpired. The idea remained the same the abolition of the past.

So is the case of masked processions - the masks representing the souls of the dead.
The ceremonial reception of the dead, who are invited to feast and led back at the end of the feast to the borders of the territory, to the sea, or the river, or wherever else, is also in line with this concept. Add to these the interlude of Carnival, Saturnalia, reversal of normal order. Though all these constitute the much familiar New Year revelry, these are just part of the rites practiced by primitive man during the celebration of their own New Years.

For Luck in the New year

Traditionally, it was thought that one could affect the luck they would have throughout the coming year by what they did or ate on the first day of the year. For that reason, it has become common for folks to celebrate the first few minutes of a brand new year in the company of family and friends. Parties often last into the middle of the night after the ringing in of a new year. It was once believed that the first visitor on New Year's Day would bring either good luck or bad luck the rest of the year. It was particularly lucky if that visitor happened to be a tall dark-haired man.

 Traditional New Year foods are also thought to bring luck. Many cultures believe that anything in the shape of a ring is good luck, because it symbolizes "coming full circle," completing a year's cycle. For that reason, the Dutch believe that eating donuts on New Year's Day will bring good fortune.

Many parts of the U.S. celebrate the new year by consuming black-eyed peas. These legumes are typically accompanied by either hog jowls or ham. Black-eyed peas and other legumes have been considered good luck in many cultures. The hog, and thus its meat, is considered lucky because it symbolizes prosperity. Cabbage is another "good luck" vegetable that is consumed on New Year's Day by many. Cabbage leaves are also considered a sign of prosperity, being representative of paper currency. In some regions, rice is a lucky food that is eaten on New Year's Day.


The song, "Auld Lang Syne," is sung at the stroke of midnight in almost every English-speaking country in the world to bring in the new year. At least partially written by Robert Burns in the 1700's, it was first published in 1796 after Burns' death. Early variations of the song were sung prior to 1700 and inspired Burns to produce the modern rendition. An old Scotch tune, "Auld Lang Syne" literally means "old long ago," or simply, "the good old days."