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The Roman god, Janus

The ancient origins of New Years celebrations

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Humans have been tracking the passage of time since prehistory. As each new astral cycle began, so did the agricultural cycle that allowed humans to develop and evolve into the 21st century.

Just as long as we have tracked the changing of the seasons, so too have we celebrated what each of those new seasons means. There is one celebration, however, that stands out above the rest: the celebration of the New Year. Marking the survival of another revolution of the sun, New Year's festivities and traditions have existed for as long as we’ve had human civilisation.

Today, we might equate New Year’s Eve with partying and seeing the old year off in style whilst simultaneously starting the new year as we mean to continue. It might surprise you to learn that our celebrations today aren’t too far removed from those that our ancient ancestors experienced. Here are five ancient ways our ancestors celebrated the start of a new year.


The ancient Babylonians were among the first civilisations to have a record of a New Year celebration. Still celebrated today, records of Akitu can date the celebration back over 4,000 years.

While Akitu can be roughly translated from Sumerian to “barley”, the festival didn’t just observe the sowing of the first crop of the new year. It served a far more politically important purpose.

Coinciding with mythical sky god Marduk’s victory over the sea god Tiamat, Akitu was the time of the year when a new king would be crowned by the high priest, or the current regent would humble themselves before the gods to symbolically renew their rule for another year.

The festival was celebrated over 12 days, with different traditions and events throughout its duration. Observations ranged from special prayers and times of reflection to communal feasts and even a bizarre display where the high priest would slap the king to show his humility before the gods.


Celebrating the start of the new year on the vernal equinox, the early Roman calendar that was only 304 days long and had only ten months. As centuries passed, it became clear that the calendar wasn’t quite right, as it was starting to fall out of sync with the sun. Determined to find a solution, Julius Ceasar consulted with mathematicians and astronomers to devise a suitable solution: the Julian calendar.

Not dissimilar to the Gregorian calendar that is used worldwide today, the Julian calendar moved the start of the year to January 1st to recognise the god Janus, who was the god of change, transition, and new beginnings.

Typical ways that Romans would have celebrated the New Year included exchanging goodwill and wishes with their friends and neighbours for the year ahead, exchanging small gifts of figs and honey and burning offerings of spelt and salt on altars.

Wepet Renpet

Translated as 'the opening of the year', Wepet Renpet was the ancient Egyptian New Year celebration that honoured the death and rebirth of Osiris. Coinciding with the re-emergence of the Sirius star in the night sky and the flooding of the Nile (which typically arrived around mid-late June each year), Wepet Renpet heralded the start of a new cycle in ancient Egyptian life.

The flooding of the Nile might sound like a natural disaster, but it was, in fact, of vital importance to the agriculture of ancient Egyptians. Each year, the Nile would burst its banks, pouring not just water but vital minerals and nutrients over the flood plains of Egypt. It turned an otherwise inhospitable landscape into arable farming land and allowed the ancient Egyptian civilisation to bloom and prosper.

Having disappeared from the night sky for 70 days, the reappearance of Sirius signalled to the ancient Egyptians that life was about to start anew. Celebrations included huge festivals in temples, feasts, and rituals.