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The most iconic New Year’s tradition in the United States is the dropping of the giant ball in New York City’s Times Square at the stroke of midnight.  Close to 1 billion people around the world watch the event on television, and approximately 1 million people gather in Times Square to watch the ball drop. Over time, the ball itself has ballooned from a 700-pound iron and wood orb to a brightly patterned sphere 12 feet in diameter, weighing in at nearly 12,000 pounds, and covered with almost 2,700 crystals.

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Early New Year’s Celebrations

The earliest recorded festivities honoring the arrival of the New Year dates back some 4,000 years to ancient Babylon. For the Babylonians, the first new moon following the vernal equinox (the day in late March with an equal amount of sunlight and darkness) heralded the start of a new year. The Babylonians marked this occasion with a massive religious festival, “Atiku” (derived from the Sumerian word for barley, which was cut in the spring) that involved a different ritual on each of its 11 days.  In addition to the new year, Atiku celebrated the mythical victory of the Babylonian sky god Marduk over the evil sea goddess Tiamat.  This also served an important political purpose, as it was during this time that a new king was crowned or that the current ruler’s divine mandate was symbolically renewed.

Throughout antiquity, as civilizations around the world began developing more sophisticated calendars, they typically pinned the first day of the year to an agricultural or astronomical event.  In Egypt, the year began with the annual flooding of the Nile, which coincided with the rising of the star Sirius, and the first day of the Chinese new year, occurred with the second new moon after the winter solstice.

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January 1 Becomes New Year’s Day

In the eighth century B.C., Romulus, the founder of Rome, created the Roman calendar, which consisted of 10 months and 304 days, with each new year beginning at the vernal equinox.  A later king, Numa Pompilius, is credited with adding the months of Januarius and Februarius, making it a 12 month calendar. Over the centuries, the calendar fell out of sync with the sun, and in 46 B.C. the emperor Julius Caesar decided to solve the problem.  After consulting with the most prominent astronomers and mathematicians of his time, Caesar introduced the Julian calendar, which closely resembles the more modern Gregorian calendar that most countries around the world use today.

As part of his reform, Caesar instituted January 1 as the first day of the year, in part to honor the month’s namesake: Janus, the Roman god of beginnings – Janus’ two faces allowed him to look back into the past and forward into the future. The Romans celebrated New Year’s  by offering sacrifices to Janus, exchanging gifts, decorating their homes with laurel branches, and attending raucous parties.  In medieval Europe, Christian leaders temporarily replaced January 1 as the first of the year with days carrying more religious significance, such as December 25 (the anniversary of Jesus’ birth) and March 25 (the Feast of the Annunciation); Pope Gregory XIII reestablished January 1 as New Year’s Day in 1582.

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Did You Know?

In order to realign the Roman calendar with the sun, Julius Caesar had to add 90 extra days to the year 46 B.C. when he introduced his new Julian calendar.

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