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New Year’s Eve in Ancient Times

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New Year's Eve in Ancient TimesContrary to modern time beliefs, celebrating the advent of the New Year on January 1st in the cold and the dead nature of winter time is among the most universal pagan traditions. The custom of marking the beginning of the New Year is 4,000 years old and has its roots in ancient Babylon in Mesopotamia, when the almighty sun was worshiped some 2,000 years before the birth of Christ. From the very ancient city of Babylon these pagan customs were passed on to ancient Greece.

Ancient Greeks were not that much into celebrating the New Year rather than the “sickle of the new moon” upon recognizing the visible new moon as the beginning of each month, a custom held in honor of Selene, Apollon Noumenios, Hestia and the other household Gods, also known as noumenia.

tromaktikoIn Athens, however, there was an epigraph found reading of a religious ceremony that used to take place on the beginning of the New Year, or better said on the last day of the outgoing year, which involved only a small number of people. The celebration was a sacrifice of the outgoing officials to Zeus the Savior and Athena the Savior, which aimed at ensuring the blessings and favor of the two gods for the coming new year.

It was not until ancient Roman times and while Rome grew in power, that the New Year festivities began to become extremely popular. The celebration known as the Saturnalia, a time of revelings, drinking bouts, orgies and human sacrifice in honor of god Saturn, was instituted as the festival of January 1st by Julius Caesar in 46BC upon deciding to adopt the Julian calendar. The popularity of the celebration was spread in all corners of the Roman Empire and continued with minor local and time alterations to integrate in the customs of all peoples within the Empire’s boundaries, including ancient Greece.

It was Julius Caesar and the broad knowledge of Sosigenes of Alexandria, an astronomer whom Julius Caesar consulted for the design of the Julian calendar, that are responsible for bringing the year count into conformity with the sun course. All in all, the sequence, duration and names of the months we use today are much owed to the perception and insight of the great Roman politician and strategist.

In classical Greece every city-state used its own calendar with different month names, beginnings of the year, and intercalations. However, most of the calendars shared some common features. The Greeks used lunisolar calendars with years of 12 or 13 months resulting in a 354-day calendar. A month could be hollow or full with 29 or 30 days respectively. Periodically it was required for an extra month to be intercalated to keep the calendar in line with the circuit of the seasons.

In the most well known and historically substantiated Athenian calendar , the civil calendar, (there were other two calendars as well), the intercalated month came after the annual month named Poseidon. It was known as Second Poseidon. Some months were named after the festivals celebrated:

  • Hekatombaion
  • Metageitnion
  • Boedromion
  • Pyanopsion
  • Maimakterion
  • Poseideon (intercalated month)
  • Gamelion
  • Anthesterion
  • Elaphebolion
  • Mounychion
  • Thargelion
  • Skirophorion

The year began on the first visibility of the crescent after the first new moon following the summer solstice. Intercalation followed no fixed pattern, although several cycles were known in Greece.

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