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World: New Year's Is World's Most Widely Celebrated Holiday

  • Don Hill

Around the world, people have already started ringing in the new year with fireworks, songs, and alcoholic beverages -- lots of alcoholic beverages. The raucous celebrations express hope, reflect joy, and witness indulgences in excessive and sometimes dangerous behavior. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill takes a look at New Year's traditions and finds some wonderful anomalies about this almost universally recognized holiday.

Prague, 31 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Happy New Year! Ready to shout that greeting at midnight tonight?

If so, you're already running a bit late. The new year -- 2002 by the standard calendar -- began some hours ago in Kiritimati in the Christmas Islands and in the Kingdom of Tonga in the western South Pacific.

Standard time there, just the other side of the International Dateline, runs 13 hours ahead of Prague time. So at midnight in Prague, Tongans already will be digesting their noon meal on 1 January.

There is something of a mystery about celebrating the new year. It is the most universally recognized of holidays -- observed in Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and irreligious communities alike. But why, in most places, is it marked on 1 January, according to a calendar designed by a Roman Catholic pope?

Why do celebrants traditionally send up bright fireworks and swallow potent alcoholic beverages?

And why do they keep doing these things when, year after year, the traditions result in numerous deaths?

New Year's observations appear to be among the oldest of human festivities. There is a record of a New Year's festival celebrated 4,000 years ago in the Babylonian spring. Subsequently, the Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Persians observed the new year in the fall. The early Greeks thought late December the proper time for the occasion.

Many such divisions continue in modern times. Jews observe a religious New Year's, called Rosh Hoshana, for 10 days in late September or early October. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and secular Chinese follow calendars entirely different from the standard used in world commerce.

That standard developed only recently, relative to the history of human attempts to measure the passage of years and their seasons. The ancient Egyptians created a solar calendar, but it wasn't very precise. By the time of Julius Caesar, it was 90 days out of synch with the seasons it was supposed to measure.

So Caesar ordained a calendar to correct this, starting the year in March. Like a cheap clock, his calendar lost time, too.

In 1582, Pope Gregory in Rome got into the act. He numbered the beginning of time starting with the birth of Jesus Christ. We now know that, like his predecessors, he got it wrong also. Modern calculations say Jesus must have been four years old or more by the beginning of the first Gregorian year.

As Europeans began to dominate commerce around the globe, the world tacitly adopted Gregory's calendar as the standard. Now even peoples who recognize different calendars for religious or other purposes follow the Gregorian for workaday activities.

The earliest and still widespread New Year's custom is the making of resolutions -- promises to oneself to lose weight or become a better person in some way. Those pioneering celebrants, the Babylonians, did it. Millions of people around the world do it. And equally customary, often by 2 January, is the breaking of those resolutions.

New Year's Day is often a day for beginning things. In 1958, treaties creating the European Economic Community went into effect. Known as the EEC, it was the forerunner of the European Union. In 1993, the Czech Republic and Slovakia came into independent existence, splitting the former Czechoslovakia.

Tomorrow comprises another milestone in European history. European Central Bank President Wim Duisenberg spoke today in Frankfurt on the occasion of the introduction of banknotes and coins for the euro currency.

"New Year's Eve is traditionally a time to take stock, to look back, and to look forward. This year, however, we are very much looking forward, in more than one sense -- forward to the introduction of the euro banknotes and coins."

The euro is the new single currency, adopted by 12 of the 15 European Union countries. It comes into existence in the form of paper money and coins on 1 January, eliminating any need for costly currency exchanges for travelers and easing commercial transactions between euro-zone countries. It is the latest advance in the free-trade aims expressed by the EEC at its founding 44 years ago.

The Chinese invented fireworks. So it should not be surprising that Asians use fireworks to commemorate many different occasions. The custom has grown so widespread at the new year that it so far has defied efforts by modern states to control it. Just as prohibition in the United States failed to halt the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, efforts in China, Thailand, and other Asian nations to outlaw or license commerce in fireworks because of the dangers have only driven the trade underground.

On 29 December, a fire sparked by an explosion in a fireworks store in Lima, Peru, killed at least 240 people and injured another 160. Twenty people are missing. Peru is observing two days of national mourning.

This month in eastern China's Jiangxi Province, security inspectors probing for hidden explosives on a coal truck accidentally detonated a clandestine load of fireworks, killing nine people and injuring 14. China began combating unlicensed explosives makers after a dormitory bombing in the northern industrial city of Shijiazhuang killed 108 people in March, and dramatized how easy it is to buy explosives in China.

Since fermentation of beverages began in pre-history, people have ceremoniously, socially and, sometimes, clandestinely consumed alcoholic drinks to celebrate festive occasions. In the West, at least, New Year's Eve -- mostly free of inhibiting religious significance -- has become the main holiday for imbibing.

Members of Alcoholics Anonymous, the worldwide self-help association of alcohol addicts trying to kick the habit, jokingly speak of New Year's Eve as "amateur night." And reformers have developed hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of campaigns to limit the associated epidemic of drunk driving.

Among the latest of these has been offered by six funeral homes in the southern U.S. states of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and South Carolina. They have announced that they will pay for the coffin, embalming, and burial of people who, after signing a contract, end up dying as a result of driving while drunk on New Year's Eve. They have had no takers.

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