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CURIOSITIES:What's lang syne, my dear?

COMMENTS &

December 31, 2006|By PETER BUFFA

I say it. You say it. We all say it: Happy New Year! But answer me this, smarty pants — why do we say it? Don't get me wrong. I have no problem whatsoever with New Year's. Any excuse to have a party or sit around like a sloth is just fine in my opinion. I just wonder why we do it, that's all.

Who started the whole New Year's thing anyway? It was the ancient Babylonians, bless their hearts — they started a lot of things as it turns out. That's the cool thing about being an ancient civilization. Whatever you do, you're the first to do it. You do a hanging garden, everybody wants a hanging garden.

A simple fact explains why, on a cold and otherwise meaningless winter's night, we start yelling and cheering and kissing everyone in sight when the clock strikes 12. It's because the Babylonians followed a different calendar. Four thousand years ago, the new year didn't start in January. The Babylonians wouldn't have known January from Janis Joplin. Actually they didn't know her either. The Babylonian New Year started with the vernal equinox, a.k.a. the first day of spring.

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Like all the ancients, the Babylonians were big on fertility rituals, and the first sign of green in the spring was major. It was Mother Nature's way of saying, "I'm OK. You, you're so-so, but I'll give you another year anyway." The message of renewal was not lost on the Babylonians. Their New Year's ragers lasted 11 days, with each day having a different theme — none of which can be discussed here — and endless offerings to more gods than you can count, which is a lot of gods.

The Romans picked it up from there, still celebrating the new year in March, although they shortened the party time to a week. The Romans also gave it a twist that explains why we do what we do on New Year's. The Roman senate kept changing the calendar for various reasons until 46 BC, when Julius Caesar said, "All right already, you make me crazy with this stuff" and declared Jan. 1 the first day of the year. That's why it's called the Julian calendar, by the way.

New Year's celebrations took a serious downturn in the 2nd century when the church said they were nothing but warmed over pagan fertility rites, which they were, and banned them. As usually happens, no one paid too much attention to the ban.

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