Why do we yell and scream like maniacs, just to celebrate the new year?
I live about a block away from the Space Needle where there’s a spectacular fireworks show on New Year’s Eve. Last December, I decided to stay home and comfort my cat, Pandora. It was a loud night. Partiers grouped on the sidewalk outside, drank openly and hollered at the top of their lungs, all the while the show exploded overhead.
A couple guys seemed to freak out, mid-festivities. They ran back and forth, down the center of my tiny street, flailing their arms along the way, and you would have thought the world was coming to an end. But nope. Not even in 2012. But it got me thinking. Why do human beings celebrate like this? When did we start going a little crazy, just because tomorrow happens to be a new year?
So I checked out history.com.
According to one of the site’s stories, Babylonians were the earliest on record to kick up their heels on New Year’s Eve, some 4,000 years ago. These party-hardy ancestors actually whooped it up twice a year in a festival called “Akitu,” celebrating renewal from the past and prosperity in the future. Festivities coincided with both the spring equinox (the beginning of the lunar calendar) and the fall equinox (the time to harvest).
I can just imagine the typical Babylonian husband calling to his wife during the hoopla. “Hey Babs. Let’s run from hut-to-hut and scream joyous prayers at the sky. Plus there’s a show over at the neighbors. They’re reenacting Maruk’s victory over Tiamut, in costume. I love it when that evil, sea goddess bitch gets tromped by the god of the sky.”
Fast forward several thousand years, in 46 B.C., when Julius Caesar had to solve a “syncing issue” between the Roman calendar and the actual orbit of the sun. Apparently, part of the fix was to move New Year’s Day to the beginning of the month of Januarius, honoring Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, an interesting dude.
Janus is a deity with two faces who can simultaneously look into the past and out to the future. His particular festivities included crazy parties, and “sacrifices to Janus, exchanging gifts, decorating their homes with laurel branches.”
Sounds a little like today? Well, sort of. Instead of sacrificing a goat to Janus, we destroy a few brain cells.
That said, I do think we see New Years Eve as a time to look with two faces, to be relieved we’ve survived the past year and to hope for our futures. When we blow paper horns and scream at the top of our lungs, are we (like our ancestors) issuing a boisterous prayer to our gods for renewal and prosperity? Maybe the simple act of railing at what lurks ahead provides an added strength to cope.
Celebrating in the street – or the center of an ancient village – must help, right? And what better way to rock the ancient Babylonia’s sky god, Maruk, than the dazzling fireworks of today. I’ll bet that even Babs would agree.
As a footnote, I was inspired to write this post by my friend Pam Binder. She posted a wonderful summary of ancient Yule Tide celebrations (“Winter Solstice”), in her blog at pambinder.com.