Before the traditional Christmas and New Years parties we participated in a much older rite of celebrating the longest night of the year: Winter Solstice. Out here, the community has many traditions built around the two Solstices, the summer Solstice being a three day event and the winter Solstice an all-night meditation, long dance, and celebration. It was a very spiritual experience that I shan't discus further, but would instead like to consider the New Year.
The Gregorian calendar has dominated the passage of our time since the Middle Ages, making way for new Christian holidays in the place of old pagan ones. Thus the Winter Solstice has been replaced by the celebration of Christmas on the 24th and 25 and New Year on the 31st.
The traditional solstices marked a turning point in the community's life and were celebrated by all the same manner their Christian counterparts now are in the the West(and the began holidays too in some countries, like the national celebration of summer Solstice in Finland). Depending on ones position on the globe the Solstice marked either the beginning of winter, or its midpoint. In neolithic times starvation often plagued communities midwinter and thus Solstice was a feast, often of meat, a tradition that has followed us to the present.
The long dance, and dancing out the sun too, seems to have been a universal theme something that presented itself in celebrations ranging from Native American ceremonies, to the Roman Saturnalia. A variety of magic rites were practised, to ensure good luck, bountiful harvests and happiness, for the next lunar year, and still remain in some cultures.
While the celebration of Solstices is (at least here in the Northern Hemisphere) is an ancient tradition, dating back to the neolithic times, the New Year has not always started in January.
The Celts believed that the new year came in the beginning of the dark time of the year, on the fall Equinox, which they called Samhain. Starting on, as we know it All Hallow's Eve, they celebrated for three nights, feasting on the harvest of the previous year, in preparation for the dark times ahead.
Other cultures still have their new year at a different time from the commonly adapted Western date. The Chinese New Year falls between January 20th and February 20th, depending each year on the moon and the sun. Red decorations and family visits are a tradition, as well as the now ubiquitous New Years fireworks.
The traditional Russian New Year falls on the 14th of January according to the Julian calendar, and though modern Russia has adapted the Gregorian Calendar, the Russians still acknowledge the old date. This means they get two New Years celebrations (They also have two Christmasses-lucky!)
Many cultures celebrate their new year in March and April, around the time of the Spring equinox. In spite their British influence, many Indians celebrate New Year on april 14th, 15th and 16th with variety of names for the different festivities.
Regardless of the dates and the traditions of celebrating the coming New Cycles in our lives, is worthy, not only of eating and drinking, bringing light into the darkness and making merry with one's friends and loved ones, but also in the introspection that a New Year has always brought with it. Our silly promises to start taking care of ourselves, or realise our dreams, this coming year, are symbolic of the changing of seasons, of the old that must be left behind and the new that must be embraced.