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

Here's the real story behind New Year's Eve and Day and how it became a holiday. In 2021, December 31 falls on a Friday and January 1, 2o22 is on a Saturday.

As you prep all your favorite New Year’s traditions, like a midnight countdown (hint: here is where to watch the ball drop); brainstorm some New Year’s Eve party ideas; and write your New Year’s resolutions, you may be left with 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 is with all the many New Year’s traditions in other countries, including wearing colorful undies? We have answers!

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 January 1st, 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 September 20, to be the start of their new year. Then, the ancient Greeks picked the winter solstice, around December 20, to begin the new year.

Enter the Romans: Emperor Julius Caesar decided to end all of 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, January 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, however. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII tweaked the Julian calendar, creating the Gregorian calendar, which is the standard most of the world uses today. He re-established January 1 as New Year’s Day.

What day is New Year’s?

New Years day on 2022 calendarNora Carol/Getty Images

When is New Year’s, exactly? The answer is a little more complicated than you may think as there is 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 single year. The next occurrence will be January 1, 2022.

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 February 1, 2022, followed by January 22, 2023; February 10, 2024; and January 29, 2025.

Is New Year’s Eve a holiday?

New Year’s Eve, December 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! Try telling these New Year jokes to really get the party started.

Is New Year’s a federal holiday?

New Year’s Day, January 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.

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

Spanish New Year traditionshappy_lark/Getty Images

In the US, 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. Fireworks, cheers, and songs officially start the first day of the new year.

Whether they are eating New Year’s Eve lucky food 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 and 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. They’re not the only ones, however. Bolivians also swear by yellow undies, Italians have a similar tradition but with red unmentionables, and Argentinians swear by pink panties to ring in the new year.
  • 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.

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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.