Since 1906, hundreds of thousands of people have gathered in the middle of a freezing New York winter night to celebrate the start of a new year. Watching the 11,875-pound ball drop with colorful fireworks behind it and making resolutions for the upcoming year are just a few of the traditions packed into the world’s most celebrated holiday. However, what is the root of this national holiday? And, are Jews allowed to celebrate this secular new year?
Celebrating a new year is the perfect excuse to have a fresh start and revive hope. Almost every religion and culture has a date that marks their new year. For example, the Chinese observe the lunar new year and celebrate the 15 days between the first new moon and the first full moon. The date of this celebration varies because it is based on a solar calendar. This new year follows traditions such as cleaning the house of negativity, receiving red envelopes (often filled with cash) and spending time with family. It makes sense that Chinese culture follows the moon to keep track of time, but why does the Western world routinely celebrate on Jan. 1?
The answer to this question lies in ancient Babylonian traditions. Ancient Babylon, which has one of the earliest recordings of celebrating a new year, based their celebrations on the mythical victory of the Babylonian sky god Marduk over the evil sea goddess Tiamat. During this holiday, either a new king was assigned, or the current king’s mandate was renewed. However, this New Year was celebrated in March, which was the first month on a 10-month calendar rotation.
Finally, under Julius Caesar’s reign of the Roman empire, in 46 B.C., the remaining months of January and February were added to the calendar and the New Year was celebrated on Jan. 1. Caesar chose January in order to honor the Roman god of beginnings, Janus. Janus’ two faces allowed him to look back into the past and forward into the future. As Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Pagaen holiday on New Year’s was intertwined into the Christian calendar. The holiday was redressed as the day Jesus was circumcised, 8 days after Dec. 25 (Christmas).
The roots of why the New Year is celebrated on Jan. 1 support halachic Jews celebrating the secular new year. Jewish tradition teaches that Jews are not allowed to follow any holiday based in religious roots that are still practiced. However, if the holiday has religious roots but the religion is no longer followed, a Jew may celebrate the holiday. The first time New Year’s was celebrated on Jan. 1 is based on a story of a Pagaen god that is no longer followed in 2019, and thus, Jews can countdown on Dec. 31. Furthermore, many Rabbis believe in using Jan. 1 as a physical new year: a time to grow physically, while using Rosh HaShanah as a spiritual New Year. So, enjoy welcoming in 2020 with friends and family!