A new year is almost here.
It's coming whether you go to bed at 9 tonight or stay up all night celebrating with a midnight mass or a midnight mess of noisemakers and booze.
Saturday, the first day of 2011, kicks off a new decade and a chance for a fresh start.
Babylonians are often credited with linking the start of a new year with a resolve to start fresh. It goes back as far as 2,000 B.C., when ancient Babylonians returned items that had been borrowed from neighbors the previous year. For Babylonians, however, the start of the new year was observed with the budding of spring in March.
Roman Emperor Julius Cesar introduced the Julian calendar in 46 B.C. It established January as the first month of each new year. The month was named for Janus, the mythical Roman god of gates, doors, doorways, beginnings, endings and time. He had two faces - one to look back at the past and one to look forward.
Romans celebrated the new year with resolutions of good intent. They sought forgiveness from their enemies and exchanged gifts. At first, they presented one another with branches from sacred trees - a symbol of good fortune. In time, nuts or coins bearing the image of Janus replaced the branches.
The New Year's designation continued to fluctuate through the centuries and, still today, through various cultures. New Year's celebrations were outlawed in medieval Europe for their pagan roots. It wasn't until the Gregorian calendar was introduced in 1582 that New Year's Day was restored to Jan. 1. "Although most Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar almost immediately, it was only gradually adopted among Protestant countries," Infoplease reported on its Web site. "The British, for example, did not adopt the reformed calendar until 1752. Until then, the British Empire - and their American colonies - still celebrated the new year in March."
American statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin embraced the idea of New Year's resolutions as early as 1738. Dr. Blaine McCormick, associate dean for undergraduate programs at the Hankamer School of Business at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, describes Franklin as the pioneer of the self-help industry. He pursued a number of self-help projects and encouraged others to make similar attempts.
"Franklin was very honest about his success in achieving his resolutions," McCormick said in a Baylor University press release promoting his book, "Ben Franklin: America's Original Entrepreneur." "He admitted much failure in his autobiography but also noted that he was a much better person for having made the attempt. His life and legacy certainly suggest the effort to keep one's resolutions pays handsome dividends."
Franklin advised readers of the "Poor Richard's Almanac" in 1783 to eliminate at least one bad habit each year. If they do, he said, even the worst men will become good in time.
Most modern-day resolutions tend to fall in the same categories each year. People resolve to be healthier, to take control of their finances or to improve themselves step by step.
To help them on their journey, the U.S. government has assembled tips, publications and advice for 11 popular resolutions on its Web site: www.usa.gov/Citizen/Topics/New_Years_Res.... The topics include: drinking less alcohol; getting a better education, getting a better job, getting fit, losing weight, managing debt, managing stress, quitting smoking, saving money, taking a trip and volunteering to help others.
New Year's good-luck rituals
A kiss shared at midnight is a New Year's custom in the United States, but do you really know why we do it?
Some people believe that what you do on the first day of the new year affects how you live your life for the next 12 months. People kiss to ensure that their relationship lasts.
Others believe the tradition started with masked balls, which were commonly held on New Year's Eve many years ago. The masks represented evil spirits from the old year. At the stroke of midnight, the masks were lowered and people kissed. The kiss was a symbol of purification for the new year, according to Gary Ryan Blair, a motivational speaker and the inspiration behind New Year's Resolution Week. He believes that a single resolution can positively and profoundly create lasting change in your life and help to make the world a better place. His Web site - www.GoalsGuy.com - includes a history of the New Year's holiday, tips for sticking to common resolutions and even a listing of good-luck traditions. Following are some of the lucky traditions practiced in nations that will observe New Year's Day this week.
In the South, people rely on the consumption of black-eyed peas for a fortuitous start.
Suckling pigs are a symbol of good luck on an Austrian New Year's Day. Serve the pig on a table decorated with tiny edible pigs. Top off the meal with green peppermint ice cream shaped like a four-leaf clover.
Brazilians eat lentil soup or lentils and rice on New Year's Day. For them, lentils signify wealth.
In Denmark, people save their old dishes all year long. These dishes are hurled at the front doors of their friends' homes on New Year's Eve. Anyone with a pile of broken dishes at his door also has many friends.
The first visitor to an English home could determine a family's fate for the coming year. They believe the first guest should be male and he should bring three gifts: coal for the fire, a loaf for the table and a drink for the master. He brings good luck by entering the front door and leaving through the back.
Front and back doors also play a key role in a lucky new year for the Welsh. They open the back door on the first toll of midnight to release the old year and all of its bad luck. On the final toll of midnight, the front door is opened to welcome the new year and its good luck.
In Germany, people have been known to drop molten lead into cold water. The lead's resulting shape foretells the future. For example, a heart or ring shape mean a wedding will occur, a ship indicates a journey and a pig means plenty of food.
Germans also leave on their plates a bit of each food eaten on New Year's Eve. If they left the food there until after midnight, their pantries would be full all year. They often ate carp, which was believed to bring wealth.
In Haiti, people wear new clothing and exchange gifts in the hope that it will bode well for the new year.
Those who eat lasagna on New Year's Day in Sicily will have good luck. Any other noodle is believed to bring bad luck.
In Spain and Portugal, people eat one grape with each toll of the clock at midnight. The grapes bring good luck in each of the 12 months ahead. In Peru, people add one more grape, which acts as a good-luck insurance policy.
Greece celebrates St. Basil's Day on Jan. 1. St. Basil, one of the forefathers of the Greek Orthodox Church, is remembered for his kindness and generosity to the poor. Greeks bake special bread with a coin in the dough. When the bread is ready, the first slice is reserved for the Christ child; the second for the father of the household; and the third for the house. If the coin is in the third slice, spring will come early that year.
Norway does something similar, hiding an almond in rice pudding. The person who finds the almond is guaranteed wealth in the new year.
"Jack Straw," an effigy for the evils and misfortunes of the last year, is burned on New Year's Eve in Hungary.