Celebrating the first day of the new year is an age old custom. Nearly all the people of the world have marked it in one way or another. However, the day selected as New Year’s Day has varied widely over time, depending on the different countries, religions and the calendar they used. The new year has arrived as early as the autumnal equinox, about Sept. 21, or as late as the summer solstice, about June 21.

In most European countries during the Middle Ages, March 25 was the beginning of the new year. England kept that date until 1751, because the Brits were still using the Julian calendar. In countries that still use the Julian calendar, New Year's Day arrives on Jan. 13 of our present-day calendar. The Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, is sometimes called the “feast of the trumpets.” It takes place in September or October and lasts for 48 hours.

When China was still a free country, the people prepared for their new year’s celebration by cleaning house, paying off their debts and closing their shops. Every person decked out in holiday clothing and gathered up a supply of fruits, candies and fancy little packages of tea to give to their friends. On New Year's Eve, everyone stayed up all night, feasting and shooting off fireworks.

In Japan, every person gets new clothing and takes off from work for three days

to visit and celebrate with friends. Each gatepost is adorned and decorated with evergreens and bamboo. Over each door hang red lobsters, crabs and scarlet tangerines, which stand for long life and happiness. In Japanese custom, everyone will bow and smile, giving season’s greetings to friends, neighbors, and even total strangers.

The Japanese children all play Hanetsuki. Similar to badminton, it is played by hitting a shuttlecock back and forth with battledores (bats or rackets). The game was originally played and became a tradition because it kept illness and evil spirits away from the children.

At Christmas time, French peasant children place their wooden shoes on the hearth hoping to receive a present, but the adults exchange gifts on New Year's Day. In Scotland, the tradition is that to be the first one in the house on New Year's Day brings good luck. Midnight celebrators carry cakes and spiced ale to wish their hosts good luck in the coming year.

Even till this day, different places have different customs. Leningrad, Russia, once welcomed the new year with a hundred cannon shots at midnight, and some Scandinavian cities still fire off guns. Italy celebrates the New Year as part of its Yuletide festival by reveling until the Twelfth Night, 12 days after Christmas.

In America celebrations still vary somewhat. Back in our grandparents heyday, everyone used to hold an open house and neighbors and friends all dropped by for good wishes and a little snort or sip of hot cider.

My mother always fixed a soda made of lime sherbet and 7-Up. However, in this day and age that tradition has pretty well faded away. Some spend New Year’s Eve in a

local bar with friends. Others gather for ringing in the new year at parties, while others cuddle up in front of the tube for Dick Clark's countdown in New York's Times Square, while others honk car horns and shoot off fireworks at the stroke of midnight.

Reference: Compton’s Encyclopedia

To reach Ted W. Stillwell send e-mail to Ted@blueandgrey.com or call him at 816-895-3592.