CHARLOTTE, NC – What better day for a full complement of trivia than the first day of the new year? Which in this case, happens to be January 1, 2020. As near as historians can figure, the first New Year was celebrated about 4,000 years ago by the ancient Babylonians long before New York City even existed and considerably before its now famous ball first dropped in Times Square at midnight.
Myth Trivia catches you up on ancient Babylonians and Pope Gregory XIII
In those ancient Babylonian days however, the new year began on March 20th, according to our calendar. Otherwise known as the vernal equinox, that’s the approximate day when the sun passes directly over the equator.
All of that changed in 45 BC when Julius Caesar adopted the Julian calendar, making January 1 the first day of the year. Today, we mark that date with the Gregorian calendar. Promulgated by Pope Gregory XIII, it was adopted in October, 1582, replacing the Julian calendar. But January 1 still survived as numero uno for the first day of the year in the new calendar.
Cigarette commercials and Ricky Nelson disappear and the Beatles fail
Lest you think that January 1 is always quiet and reserved only for showcasing roses in Pasadena, California, think again. New Year’s Day offers some fascinating milestones to which we can all relate. For example, did you know that cigarette commercials were banned from television advertising on January 1, 1971?
For those of us old enough to remember, pop singer Ricky Nelson died in a controversial plane crash on New Year’s Eve, 1985, while flying to Texas for a concert. The plane had a well-documented history of mechanical problems. Of the nine people aboard, only the two pilots survived.
Here’s another musical item that is not of great significance so much as it is difficult to believe. The Beatles failed an audition for Decca Records on January 1 back in 1962.
Strange international traditions
As with most holidays New Year’s Day contains its share of international traditions. In Italy, for instance, it’s customary to wear red underwear for good luck throughout the year.
In Finland, family and friends gather to burn metal in a pan for a New Year’s Day ritual called “molybdomancy.” The Finns inspect the shadows the metal casts by candlelight, as those shapes are supposed to predict the future. Although, this metal is customarily called “tin,” it’s actually sometimes lead. Unfortunately, among other things, breathing in lead fumes can, over time, cause severe mental illness. Even today on January 1, 2020.
However, when it comes to burning stuff the Finns aren’t alone. Ecuadorians burn paper-filled scarecrows, the Swiss drop ice cream on the floor, and people in Siberia plunge into frozen lakes while carrying a tree trunk — all to ring in the new year.
Look out for that New Year’s kiss!
Elsewhere, many historians say the New Year’s kiss is derived from either German and/or English folklore. Both customs contend that the first person you encounter in a new year will set that year’s tone. So, if the person you encounter likes you enough to make out with you, things are looking pretty good. Of course there’s always “two sides to every coin.”
Dr. Frankenstein, I presume?
On a literary note, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus appeared on bookshelves on January 1, 1818 by 20-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Mary Shelley created the story on a rainy afternoon in 1816 in Geneva, where she was staying with her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, their friend Lord Byron and Lord Byron’s physician, John Polidori. Trapped indoors by inclement weather, the group passed the time telling and writing ghost stories. The ideas for Frankenstein and Polidori’s The Vampyre, which was published in 1819, were both born that day.
Hoppin’ John, anyone?
But note: when it comes to weird New Year’s Day traditions, the US doesn’t get a free pass either. Thought to have been derived from a Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) custom, Americans in the South annually swear they’ll guarantee a lucky year by scarfing down black-eyed peas for good luck. The usual vehicle for this became a dish known as “Hoppin’ John.” The recipe varies from family to family.
Most Southerners and many historians maintain this tradition began to take hold stateside when the first Shepardic Jews moved to Georgia in the 1730s. By the end of the Civil War, the Rosh Hashanah tradition had evolved into a widespread practice in the South, enjoyed by both Jews and gentiles.
1863: A New Year and a New Dawning in the USA
New Year’s Day also carries some fascinating historical milestones as well. Almost everyone knows about the Emancipation Proclamation. But were you aware that Abraham Lincoln signed it on January 1, 1863?
Attempting to stitch together a nation mired in a bloody civil war, Abraham Lincoln made this last-ditch but carefully calculated decision regarding the institution of slavery in America. Lincoln hoped that declaring a national policy of emancipation would stimulate a rush of the South’s slaves into the ranks of the Union army. The aim: To deplete the Confederacy’s labor force, upon which the southern states depended to continue to wage war against the North.
Less than a century later, on December 22, 1941, Churchill arrived in Washington, D.C., for the Arcadia Conference, a discussion with President Roosevelt about a unified Anglo-American war strategy and a future peace. Led by the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, the signatories of the Arcadia Conference agreed to use all available resources to defeat the Axis powers, with the establishment of the United Nations being one of its most important achievements.
Following up on that aim, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill issue a declaration, signed by representatives of 26 countries, meant to create the “United Nations” on January 1, 1942. The signatories of the declaration vowed to create the UN to serve as an international postwar peacekeeping organization.
Where should you be on New Year’s Eve?
Rounding out our excursion into January 1 trivia, the top three places to celebrate New Year’s Eve in the US are Las Vegas, Disney World and, of course, New York City. The city first unleashed its now-famous Time Square New Year’s Eve Ball in 1907 following a ban on fireworks there. Back then, they dropped that first 700-pound ball made of iron and wood and embellished with 25-watt bulbs.
Today, a newer version of that world famous ball spans 12 feet in diameter, weighs 11,875 pounds. The city arranged to adorn it quite spectacularly with 2,668 illuminated Waterford crystals.
Internationally, one of the biggest New Year’s Eve celebrations is in Sydney, Australia. The city sets off more than 80,000 fireworks from Sydney Harbor Bridge, beginning at the stroke of midnight each January 1.
And let’s not forget Scottish poet Robert Burns
No New Year’s Day story would be complete without a reference to the 1788 poem Auld Lang Syne by Scottish poet Robert Burns. Burns attributed the lyrics to unwritten remarks by an unnamed old man, but parts of it very closely resemble a poem called “Old Long Syne” written in 1711 by a man called James Watson. Most observers credit Burns with writing the rest of it.
Traditionally, the Boy Scouts of America sing Auld Lang Syne at the end of their jamborees.
It’s a wrap!
And in closing on a personal note, Auld Lang Syne is no longer one of our family traditions. You see, Auld Lang Syne when abbreviated becomes “ALS.” (See below.)
And so, a Happy New Year to all on this January 1, 2020.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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