A year, no matter how it is determined, is simply a complete cycle. The transition, the precise turning point, between the end of one cyclical period and the start of another designates a new year.
A year is like a life cycle.
It starts, it ends, then you teach your son how to ride a bicycle
But before it's over, you want to have
But, if you don't do something, the earth
will still revolve around the sun.
-- Peter Vozzo, Grade 5
The vernal equinox was celebrated as New Year throughout the ancient Near and Mid East. Norooz, the ancient Persian New Year, has survived in modern Iran. The spring, when birds lay their eggs, plants and animals are born, when all of nature is refreshed, replenished, renewed -- is a perfect time to begin a new year. On the other hand, the Autumn Equinox, when the hard labor of the growing and harvest seasons are finished and when the storehouses are filled with grains and roots and nuts is equally ideal. The Jewish New Year begins on the new moon after the Fall Equinox. The Cherokee New Year, Nutwatiegwa, when the world is re-created, is on the full harvest moon in the fall.
The Winter Solstice, when the sun is reborn with new strength and the days begin to lengthen is New Year for those who live in Arctic climates, like the Koryaks of northern Siberia, the East Greenlanders and the Eskimos of Hudson Bay. The Iroquois New Year is the Winter Festival of Dreams. In China, New Year is the second new moon after the Winter Solstice, or the when the new moon was closest to the constellation Aquarius. Tibetan New Year is the full moon in February or March. The Celts and the Teutons celebrated New Year on the Autumn Cross-Quarter Day when the natural world was in its death throes. The logic here is that death feeds life, that the new is born from the old. The Wiccan tradition still observes Halloween as the witches' New Year, Samhain.
Most cultures count the annual cyclic return according to the movements of the heavenly bodies. In Myanmar (formerly Burma), New Year is called Thingyan, which means, "to change" and "to transfer." This refers to the change in position of the sun from the asterism, Revati in Meen to the asterism, Aswini in Mesh, or when the sun enters Aries. The position of the star, Na, in relation to the new moon signals the start of the new year in Micronesia. The rising of the Pleiades indicated the New Year to the Incas of Peru, and the rising of the brightest star Sirius, told that of ancient Egypt.
Other cultures look to climatic and atmospheric patterns and assorted intermittent acts of nature. In Egypt, the New Year starts when the Nile rises in June or July. In tribal India and Australia, the end of the dry season signals the New Year, and the San of the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa celebrate New Year with the coming of the rains. The Coptic New Year, Enkutatash, coincides with end of the spring rains and the lush greening of the land that follows. The New Year of the Seek'nam people of Tierra del Fuego and the Adaman Islanders marks the banishment of the cold, stormy season. In Mesopotamia of old, New Year was in the autumn after the end of the summer drought.
Still, others count the new year according to milestones in the life cycles of certain plants and animals. The Greeks celebrate Sept. 1 as their religious new year, as it is the all-important start of the sowing season. The Kakiutl, Tsimshian and other Pacific coastal Indians of the American Northwest begin their year with the annual running of the salmon. The nomadic herding tribes of Siberia, the Tatars, Yakuts, Mongols, Saami and Chukchi start with the birth of the baby animals, the reindeer, caribou, and horses, upon which their cultures depend. The Trobrian Islanders of Melanesia, as well as the Hausa of Ghana and the Yoruba of Nigeria, consider the yam harvest as the New Year.
In 153 B.C., Julius Caesar proclaimed, in a completely arbitrary manner, that Jan. 1 was to be, henceforth, the new Roman New Year. The God Janus, who faces both backward to the past and forward to the future, was the guardian of the New Year passageway, like a careful pedestrian who looks both ways before crossing. The first month of the new year still bears his name. Regardless of the many different religious and cultural calendars in use today, all international commercial, governmental and sporting occasions are conducted according to the Western Gregorian calendar, the successor of the one designed by Julius. Consequently, Jan. 1 is the official secular New Year for the entire world.
The New Year (for us in the Northern Hemisphere) comes at the same time as the new light. Though New Year does not fall directly on the Winter Solstice, it is close enough that it subliminally reflects the sense of optimism and hope that accompanies the solstice return of the sun. And so we begin again with hope in our hearts.
Sending blessings to all for a fruitful and fulfilling New Year.