Life in Williston

New Year traditions

Jan. 5, 2012

By Neel Tandan


Entering the New Year, Father Time is no doubt a little more haggard, a little more plagued by that dispersive law of entropy and leaning a little more heavily on his wooden cane — a burdensome hourglass strapped to his back. But he trudges onwards, towards the end of the Mayan calendar, scoffing as he goes and making the first tracks in what will become another chapter — 2012.

Maybe your entrance into the New Year was not so begrudging — or maybe it was even worse — but whether you recognize this event as significant or not it is nearly impossible not to succumb to the celebrations.

For many ancient people, the New Year came at harvest time, when rituals and other customs were developed to bring purity into their lives. It was the ancient Romans who dedicated the first of January to Janus, their god of gates (new beginnings). Janus had two heads, one facing forwards and the other facing backwards, representing the past and future.

The New Year was unstable throughout the Middle Ages and not designated to any particular day. It was not until 1582, when Pope Gregory VIII established the Gregorian calendar (a revision of the Romans’ Julian Calendar), that the first of January was solidified as the official beginning of the New Year. Despite being associated with the Church, the Gregorian calendar was adopted by countries all over the world (secular and non-secular) for centuries to come. This can mostly be attributed to the permeation of Western culture and influence around the globe; the calendar was officially adopted by Great Britain and its colonies in 1752. Today it is the most widely used civil calendar.

The dominance of the Gregorian New Year is so widespread that other New Year celebrations are usually off the radar. I attended a Vietnamese New Year celebration in Burlington last year and was surprised by the number of people in the crowd. The Chinese New Year is celebrated extensively all over Southeast Asia and beyond, and is viewed as the most important Chinese holiday. This year it will fall on Jan. 23, starting off the Year of the Dragon. Most New Year celebrations are affiliated with a particular belief system and can be scattered throughout the year.

The Iranian New Year, for instance, is called Nowruz and is celebrated on the vernal equinox — usually falling between March 20 and 21; the Nepali New Year is celebrated between April 12 and 15; and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is celebrated each year in September or early October. Since Muslims follow a calendar that contains 354 days, New Year’s Day changes from year to year (on the Gregorian Calendar).

Interestingly, no matter the day a New Year is celebrated, a certain island located in the Pacific Ocean — Caroline Island — is always the first to kick off the celebration. This is because the island is located just west of the International Date Line, a jagged line cutting through the Pacific Ocean from north to south and an official marker of the calendar day.

So, regardless of when you celebrate the New Year, if you want to be the first to make the leap, you know where to go.

Neel Tandan is a lifelong Williston resident who graduated from the University of Vermont in 2010.