When Is New Year’s, and Why Do We Celebrate It?

Here's the real story behind New Year's Eve and New Year's Day—and how they became holidays

It’s time to start thinking about all your favorite New Year’s traditions and make some plans. Maybe you’ll be hosting a New Year’s Eve party, in which case you’ll need some fun game ideas and decorations. And no matter what you do, you’ll probably want to watch the ball drop at midnight. You might also want to make some New Year’s resolutions. ‘Tis the season, after all! But whatever you choose, you might have a few questions about this ancient and sometimes mysterious holiday. When is New Year’s? Who decided the new year starts in January? And what’s with the New Year’s traditions in other countries, like wearing colorful undies on the big night? We have answers!

Get Reader’s Digest’s Read Up newsletter for humor, cleaning, travel, tech and fun facts all week long.

What day is New Year’s?

When is New Year’s, exactly? The answer is a little more complicated than you may think, since there’s more than one definition of a “year.” When celebrating the New Year, it’s helpful to know exactly which new year you’re talking about! Different civilizations have measured time in different ways, with some basing the year around the sun and others clocking the year by the moon.

The United States uses the Gregorian calendar, based on the solar year; one solar year, or the time it takes the Earth to orbit the sun, is around 365 days. That means New Year’s Day is celebrated on the first of January every year. The next occurrence will be on Sunday, Jan. 1, 2023. According to Time and Date, the first country to officially enter 2023 will be the Republic of Kiribati, an Oceania island.

The lunar New Year varies and takes a little calculating; one lunar year, or 12 full cycles of the moon, is roughly 354 days. Chinese Lunar New Year is the most popular and begins at sunset on the day of the second new moon following the winter solstice. Don’t worry, we did the math for you: The next occurrence is Jan. 22, 2023, followed by Feb. 10, 2024; Jan. 29, 2025; and Feb. 17, 2026.

Is New Year’s Eve a holiday?

New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, is not an officially recognized federal holiday in America. That said, many people love celebrating it and count it as one of their favorite holidays. It makes sense—it’s hard to celebrate New Year’s Day without the New Year’s Eve countdown and other festivities the night prior! This year, New Year’s Eve falls on a Saturday, which will up the ante for your celebrations. Try telling these New Year jokes to get the party started.

Is New Year’s a federal holiday?

New Year’s Day, Jan. 1, is the first officially recognized federal holiday on the calendar in America. In 1870, Congress passed a law that declared New Year’s Day (along with Christmas Day and Independence Day) to be a national holiday.

The history of New Year’s Day

Celebrating the first day of another year on Earth has been a historical tradition for millennia. After all, survival and new beginnings are a pretty big deal. However, New Year’s Day, as most of the world currently celebrates it, on Jan. 1, is a fairly recent invention. In fact, there have been a lot of different days chosen to mark the start of a new year.

The first recorded new year celebration happened in Mesopotamia four millennia ago, about 2000 B.C. They picked the vernal equinox, around March 20, to mark the beginning of their new year. After that, we have records of other ancient civilizations, including the Egyptians, Persians and Phoenicians, choosing the autumnal equinox, around Sept. 20, to be the start of their new year. Then, the ancient Greeks picked the winter solstice, around Dec. 20, to begin the new year.

Enter the Romans: Emperor Julius Caesar decided to end all the confusion by creating a standardized calendar that would follow the solar year. After consulting with scientific experts, in 46 B.C., he introduced the Julian calendar. In this calendar, Jan. 1 was established as the official first day of the new year. This coincides with the time of year that the Earth is closest to the sun. It’s also in honor of Janus, the namesake god of January, known for having two faces—one looking forward to the future and one looking backward to the past.

That wasn’t quite the end, though. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII tweaked the Julian calendar, creating the Gregorian calendar, which is the standard most of the world uses today. He reestablished Jan. 1 as New Year’s Day.

What are some New Year’s traditions around the world?

items representing New Year traditions around the world on white backgroundhappy_lark/Getty Images

In the United States, New Year’s is typically celebrated with a large party starting on New Year’s Eve. People count down the time—sometimes using the ball drop in New York City or elsewhere—until the clocks officially begin the new year. They often toast with champagne, share a New Year’s kiss at the stroke of midnight, sing “Auld Lang Syne” and make New Year’s resolutions (some may even base them on their zodiac sign). Many people also coordinate the perfect New Year’s makeup and nail looks to ring in the new year in style. Fireworks, cheers and songs officially start the first day of the new year.

Whether they are eating New Year’s Eve’s lucky foods (like pork and sauerkraut) or throwing crockery, many cultures have fun and unique ways of celebrating New Year’s Day.

China

The Chinese started the tradition of using pyrotechnics—they invented fireworks—to celebrate the New Year. So it makes sense that while many places use fireworks, Chinese New Year’s displays are some of the biggest and brightest.

Spain

People attempt to eat 12 grapes in the 12 seconds before midnight on New Year’s Eve. Just don’t choke!

Switzerland

The Swiss drop blobs of whipped cream on the floor and leave them there overnight to invite richness and wealth in the new year.

Scotland

The “first footer”—the first person to step into your home on New Year’s Day—is seen as an omen of what the next year will bring. Tradition says that someone tall and dark brings the best luck.

Colombia

Yellow is said to symbolize love and happiness, so to make sure the new year is full of both, Colombians don a brand-new pair of yellow underwear before heading out to celebrate. And they’re not the only ones. Bolivians also swear by yellow undies, Italians have a similar tradition but with red unmentionables, and Argentinians wear pink panties to ring in the new year. Those New Year’s colors have significant meaning!

Japan

Buddhist temples ring their bells 108 times to represent each of the “human sins” and encourage people to make better choices in the new year.

Siberia

Taking an icy plunge on the first day of the new year is one way that Russians symbolize starting over with a clean slate.

England

Couples kiss at the stroke of midnight. The passion in the kiss is said to foretell the future of the relationship.

Sources:

Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen, BS, MS, has been covering health, fitness, parenting, and culture for many major outlets, both in print and online, for 15 years. She's the author of two books, co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast, and also does freelance editing and ghostwriting. She has appeared in television news segments for CBS, FOX, and NBC.