Two years ago, this photo of drunken revellers on a Manchester street on New Year’s Eve was hailed as a brilliant depiction of 21st century Britain.
Taken by photographer Joel Goodman (and published in the Manchester Metro), a little tweet by a BBC producer, Roland Hughes, on it’s artistic merits, saw it go viral. Soon there were memes and lookey-likeys .
Celebrating New Year is something our ancient ancestors also got down to a fine art. The Babylonians in Mesopotamia, c. 2000 B.C. indulged in an eleven day festival on the first day of spring making promises for the new year to curry favour with the gods and start the year off on the right foot . And many cultures since have used the sun and moon cycle to decide and celebrate the “first” day of the year. But our modern celebrations have much more in common with ancient Rome. In 46 BC Julius Caesar implemented the Julian calendar and chose January 1st to start the year. This also fell on the feast of the Roman god Janus – god of doorways and beginnings – who was depicted as having two faces; one face looking back into the past, and the other forward to the future (and hence the name for the month of January).
The Romans celebrated by offering sacrifices to Janus, exchanging gifts with one another, decorating their homes with laurel branches and attending raucous parties…
In medieval Europe the fun stopped. The celebrations became less debauched and more reverential – the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus. But as religious significance waned, so did this.
And when, in the twentieth century, the celebrations became state defined and nationalistic so the resolutions and partying began again. And with it we’ve developed modernized cultural customs. But we’re not all doing exactly the same thing. There are different strokes for different folks around the world;
Source: Illustrations by David Navas
In Spain (and several other Spanish-speaking countries), people eat a dozen grapes-symbolizing their hopes for the months ahead- right before midnight. Pork is eaten in Cuba, Austria, Hungary and Portugal because pigs are said to represent progress and prosperity. Ring-shaped cakes and pastries, a sign that the year has come full circle, finish the feast in the Netherlands, Mexico and Greece. In Sweden and Norway, meanwhile, rice pudding with an almond hidden inside is served on New Year’s Eve; it is said that whoever finds the nut can expect 12 months of good fortune.
Here we’re known for our elaborate firework displays and singing “Auld Lang Syne.
Whilst in the United States, the dropping of a giant ball in New York City’s Times Square at the stroke of midnight has been an iconic event since 1907. (The ball started as a 700-pound iron-and-wood orb and is now a brightly patterned sphere 12 feet in diameter and weighing in at nearly 12,000 pounds).
Today New Year is an extension of our multi-denominational festive season and another excuse for a binge-fest, alcohol or box-set, whatever lights your candle. I’d say wherever you end up at midnight tomorrow (and in whatever condition) make some promises and offer a few prayers of hope – if 2016 is anything to go by we could do with some.
Happy New Year.
READ: New Year revelations and resolutions have proved excellent fictional grist for novelists and dramatists alike. Here then, are five books set on and around New Year’s eve that just might have something to teach you—but will definitely entertain you.
(Recommendations (and blurb) from Barnes and Noble.)
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
Only a small portion of this classic piece of literature takes place on New Year’s—but any excuse to pick up this amazing novel is a good excuse. The New Year’s Day portion is a great scene filled with Eliot’s typically sharp observations of her fellow human beings. The party thrown by the Vincys is superficially cheerful and jolly, but tensions roil just underneath the surface, as observed by the smart and good-hearted vicar Mr. Farebrother. This is a great scene to read in preparation for heading out to a New Year’s bash.
White Teeth, by Zadie Smith
Smith’s insanely creative book begins on New Year’s Day and explores, among many other finely woven themes, how chance affects our lives. When Archie Jones changes his mind about an attempted suicide and finds his way to the dregs of a New Year’s Eve party, where he meets his future wife, it’s just the first of many ways the book celebrates how our decisions conspire to surprise us—and the story circles around to a later New Year’s to underscore the point.
Rules of Civilty, by Amor Towles
This under-appreciated first novel is a brilliant, energetic story set in a Manhattan that no longer exists. With a strong female character at its center, Rules of Civilty presents a mystery that starts at a New Year’s celebration between the end of 1937 and the beginning of 1938, but it’s really a celebration of the energy of New York and the thrill of suddenly seeing someone or something you haven’t seen in decades, bringing back a flood of memories. It also contains the world-beating line, “That’s the problem with being born in New York…you’ve got no New York to run away to.” Read this book if you’re feeling a bit settled and wonder if you could use an adventure in the New Year.
Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding
Let’s not dismiss this book—it’s a modern classic of its genre, and it’s easy to forget what a phenomenon it was back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It’s also a book that begins on New Year’s Day and dives enthusiastically into one of the great inner monologues of modern literature, as Bridget worries, records, and contemplates the proper method of making and keeping resolutions almost from the book’s very first moment. Read it if you’re worried about breaking your New Year’s resolutions—it will remind that ultimately it probably doesn’t matter, as long as you enjoy the debacle.
A Long Way Down, by Nick Hornby
Any book that opens with its four main characters accidentally choosing the same roof to jump from on New Year’s Eve is a book that really ought to be read every New Year’s Eve, possibly out loud as a new kind of holiday tradition. And since it’s a book by Nick Hornby, it’s also hilarious and satisfyingly plotted, as these people decide to postpone their suicide and the story unfolds unexpectedly from there. Read this any time you think your New Year’s experience is subpar; you’ll feel better.
WATCH: These films are the most oft recommended films for their New Year’s Eve theme or storyline.
No time to watch the whole film; then try just the New Year’s Eve scenes:
Woman’s Hour, BBC R4 – How to survive the New Year’s party
Sunday, BBC R4 – New Year’s resolutions: the theology, and do they make us happy?
From the archives:
BBC World Service – examining cultural traditions around the world – one from the archives
Letter from America by Alistair Cooke New Year’s Resolutions. Alistair Cooke looks at the changing fashions in New Year’s resolutions
Podcasts still probably more popular stateside but they are coming this way…Monocycle with Leandra Medine. Podcaster, author, humorist and creator of Man Repeller, Leandra tells a New Year’s tale.