January 14

Pongal – Day 1

Day One of Pongal is called Bhogi or Bogi, and is dedicated to the storm god Indra. Indra is the leader of the Devas–the gods and celestial beings that watch over the heavens and control the elements–such as wind, fire, rain, and air. Indra’s weapon is the thunderbolt. In that way he is similar to the Norse Thor, though his status is higher. Indeed, Indra is the subject of roughly 250 hymns and stories in the Rigveda, more than any other deity. He is incredibly handsome, but he has more vices than any other god. (Maybe that’s why he makes for such good stories!) And he never turns down a good cup of soma (the “Red Bull and vodka” of the gods.) Which would explain why the weather is the way it is.

Indra idol

He is known for his strength and smarts in slaying the dragon Vritra, which represents chaos and non-existence. It is one of the most famous battles in Hindu mythology. In defeating Vritra, Indra separates and supports the heavens and earth.

He is not as revered in modern Hinduism as he once was. This is partly attributed to his character flaws–his mistakes catch up to him and his power reduced–and partly due to the rising influence of gods such as Shiva, Vishnu and Devi. (And maybe we just aren’t as at the whim of the weather as we were in Indra’s prime.)

Bhogi is a day for family. Houses are cleaned and scrubbed top to bottom and all extra clutter is set aside, (the original Spring cleaning) and surfaces are prepared for decoration with a specially-prepared rice and paste concoction, Kolam, adorned with red mud.

In the fields freshly-harvested rice is cut with sickles anointed with sandalwood and paste. A bonfire is lit and all aforementioned “clutter” from the house is burned, along with agricultural waste. The fire symbolizes staying warm during the “last lap of winter.”



Tweeda Newa Jaar – South Africa

January 2


In Cape Town one day isn’t enough time to celebrate the New Year. So residents celebrate Tweede Nuwa Jaar, “Second New Year.”

On this day thousands line up along the streets to watch, or participate in, one of the most fascinating New Year’s celebrations in the world. The world-famous Coon Carnival.

Regarding the name, says one participant:

“The Americans come and they don’t want us to use the word Coon because it’s derogatory for the people. Here Coon is not derogatory in our sense. For us the minute you talk Coon, he sees New Year day, he sees satin and the eyes and mouth with circles in white, the rest of the face in black, like the American minstrels.”

Yes, on this day Cape Town musical groups called troupes or kaapse klopse don colorful uniforms inspired by American minstrels of the previous century. They paint their faces bright white and march down the Bo-Kaap part of the city. It has been called “a riot of color and sound” and, though it has no equal, might be compared in feel to the Mardi Gras celebrations in Brazil.

The celebration has been shunned by some members of the upper echelon, who prefer the more refined Malay Choirs and Christmas Bands. But in 1996 when Nelson Mandela put on the outfit of a minstrel troupe to open the Carnival, the traditional march outgrew its working class roots and gained a little more acceptance among the intellectual elite.

Denis-Constant Martin writes in Coon Carnival: New Year in Cape Town

“To the sounds of wind instruments, ghoemas, and tambourines, they march, dance and sing along Darling Street, past the Grand Parade, into Adderley Street, up Wale Street, into Chiappini Street, then Somerset Road and to Green Point where they go into the stadium for the second round of competitions.”

These troupes are from different parts of the city, and can number over a thousand members. To become part of a troupe all you need’s a uniform. You can beg or buy them from the group captain or bargain with him for a price. Indeed that’s how the groups make their money, from the sale of uniforms. Without a uniform, you’re not in the band, period.

The colorful outfits change each year and were inspired by the American minstrels who visited Cape Town in the mid to late 1800’s. They would smear burnt cork on their face to simulate “black face.” Locals imitated the outlandish dress, hat, and umbrella, but reversed the make-up to wear “white face” and the carnival was born.

The significance of January 2nd is that it was the one day of the year slaves were given holiday. Today the parade is an expression of the joy of life, of victory over the struggle of slavery and then apartheid, and a symbol of freedom and independence.

With the popularization of the carnival though, residents are concerned about the ideals the parade represents. Writes Joel Pollak

There is a widespread fear that organizing the Coon Carnival to appeal to foreign tourists and commercial sponsors would mean taking it away from the local communities that have kept it alive for over a hundred years, in effect reserving the best seats for tourists just as they were once reserved for whites at the segregated stadiums.

Time will see what’s in store next for the Minstrel Carnival, as city officials call it now.

O-Shogatsu: Japanese New Year

January 1

Countries all around the world celebrate New Year’s Day. But nowhere do they celebrate it like they do in Japan. Think Christmas on steroids, and you’re halfway there.

Shogatsu, named after the first month of the Japanese calendar, lasts three full days. It’s the biggest holiday of the year, barnone.

The Japanese hold special “bonekai” New Year’s parties, or “year-forgetting” parties. (These differ from American New Year’s parties where attendees hope to forget what they did at the party the next morning.)

At the end of the year, Japanese wish each other “Yoi otoshi o omukae kudasai!” which means “I wish you will have a good new year.” But if that’s too much you can just say “Yoi otoshi o!

Businesses close down for at least three days as well as schools. The rituals and activities associated with the festival however can carry on for over a week. Every “first” of the New Year must be handled with great care. It’s believed that the way in which events unfold the first time will be representative of how they will occur throughout the year—from the first sunrise (Hatsuhinode) to the first temple visit (Hatsumode), to the first tea ceremony (Hatsugama).

Japan used to celebrate its new year during the Chinese lunar new year in late January or early February, but the country adopted the Gregorian calendar during the Meiji Restoration of the 1870s. So the Shogatsu traditions are hundreds of years old even if the January 1 date is not.

Yoi otoshi o!

Shogatsu photos

Why the Fuss of January First?

January 1

Today is the Granddaddy of all holidays. Celebrated around the world, New Year’s Day transcends culture, language and religion.

The strange thing is, how of all days did this arbitrary night–December 31 to January 1–come to represent the changing of the solar calendar? It is neither a solstice nor equinox, nor the anniversary of any momentous event.

  • Russia once celebrated the New Year on September 1.
  • The Chinese New Year falls in late January through early February.
  • The French chose September 22, the autumnal equinox, during the French Revolution.
  • Iran celebrated (celebrates?) on or around March 21, the spring equinox.
  • The Hebrew calendar celebrates in early Fall.
  • The Cambodian, Thai, and some Indian provinces in mid-April.

So what gives with January 1?

In fact the Roman calendar, on which ours in based, began with March. Which makes sense if you think about the names of the months:

  • September: 7th month
  • October: 8th month
  • November: 9th month…

I was told in elementary school another reason why the months were off: it was because July and August, the months named after Julius Caesar and Augustus, were inserted after June.

Good theory. Wrong, but good theory.

The months of July and August were not “added” to the calendar but replaced the already existing months Quintilis and Sextilis. (Quintilis meant 5th and Sextilis 6th.)

So even in the time of Julius Caesar (45 BC) were 6 of the months of the year out of whack?


The original Roman calendar, supposedly created by Romulus, the founder of Rome, began in March and ended in December. March signified the beginning of the planting year and December marked the end of harvest. The remaining 60 or so days, when crops were neither sowed nor reaped, weren’t counted as months, but an amorphous winter period. As Cecil Adams puts it:

“…3,000 years ago not a helluva lot happened between December and March. The Romans at the time were an agricultural people, and the main purpose of the calendar was to govern the cycle of planting and harvesting.” – How Come February Has Only 28 Days?

This amorphous period allowed farmers to based their months on lunar cycles, not on the solar calendar. Hence the unoriginal names:

  • Quinctilis, 5th month, ie. 5th moon
  • Sextilis, 6th month, ie. 6th moon
  • September, 7th month, ie. 7th moon
  • October, 8th month, ie. 8th moon…

Farmer Ted (or Theodocus in ancient Roman) knew he had to plant such and such during the first or second moon and harvest such and such during the 8th or 9th moon.

They didn’t number the dates of the month like we do (1-31), but counted forward or backward based on the different stages of the moon each month:

The Kalends: first day of the month, or new moon
The Ides: middle of the month, or full moon
The Nones: the quartermoons

As in:

Beware the Ides of March. (Shakespeare) ie. Beware the full moon of March, ie. March 15th.


Damn, I’ve got to renew my driver’s license by the fourth day before the Kalends of Quinctilis. (Nestor the Chronicler) ie. four days before new moon of July, ie. June 27th. (The Romans included the day they were counting from as day 1.)

If you’re not confused yet, wait. It just gets better.

So sometime around 713 BC Roman King Numa Pompilius decided to name and fix this no-man’s land between December and March. He named January after the god Janus, and February after the Latin word Februum, meaning purification. It was the end of the year and marked a time of atonement. (Maybe that’s why it’s the shortest month!)

Years at this time were not numbered, but were referred to by the names of the two consuls elected that year. So this year might be Bush-Pelosi, except consuls were elected yearly.

In the third century BC the date officials took office was fixed on the Ides of March (March 15).

A law in 153 BC arbitrarily moved that date up two and a half months to January 1st.

The Cambridge Ancient History states that this was done to hasten the appointment of Quintus Fulvius Nobilior, so he could quell uprisings in Northern Spain. (Liv. Per. XLVII, Cassiod. Chron.) [More on this here.] My theory is that, as stated earlier, Romans had nothing better to do in January and February.

The date stuck and January 1st marked the beginning of the Roman legal calendar, though it was not yet considered to be the start of the new year by the general Roman populace.

Below: Caesar celebrating New Year

[Oops, wrong picture]

By the time Julius Caesar came to town a couple of problems were apparent with the Roman consular calendar.

The most important being that it was 355 days, roughly twelve lunar cycles. That worked fine for a few years but after enough years March would fall in the dead of Winter and September would mark the beginning of Summer, leading to very confused farmers, not to mention cows.

The Roman Head Honchos (Honchos Headus Romanus) tried to fix this problem by periodically inserting an extra month called Intercalaris after February. (Think Leap Month.) However, with the lack of DSL and decent cell phone service among ancient Romans, it took a while for an Intercalaris to make its way to the average farmer in the countryside, causing citizens to be in different months.

Also, the government could neglect to declare an Intercalaris for an extended time, as with the Punic Wars, leading to the “Years of Confusion” when the seasons went completely askew.

By the time Julius Caesar took power the calendar was off by approximately 100 days. He fixed this problem by extending the year 45 BC to 455 days. Then he changed the number of days in each month to create a 365-day solar calendar, rather than a lunar calendar. (Thank you Juli!)

Afterward, the calendar was also changed to refer to the year by the Emperor. So instead of being the year of Bush-Pelosi, for example, 2007 would be the 7th Year of the Reign of the Bush.

But wait there’s more!

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the calendar, the Roman Church in the 6th century AD chose March 25, the date of the Annunciation, as the official start of its New Year.

The March 25th date also explains why December 25th, exactly nine months after the Annunciation, was chosen as the birth of Jesus.

However, the centuries-old Roman tradition of celebrating January 1 as the New Year could not be suppressed. January 1 was declared a Church holiday by Pope Boniface IX in 615 AD and called “Octave of the Lord.” The Pope’s mass was conducted at Rome’s Church of St. Mary. Hence the celebration became connected with the Virgin Mary and became known as “The Feast of St. Mary.”

The Gregorian calendar, proposed by Aloysius Lilius and approved by Pope Gregory in 1582, fixed the inaccuracies of the Julian calendar and set January as the 1st month yet again.

By this time many countries had already reverted back to the January 1st New Year:

  • 1544 Holy Roman Empire
  • 1556 Spain and Portugal
  • 1559 Prussia, Denmark/Norway, and Sweden
  • 1564 France
  • 1576 Southern Netherlands

Other governments followed suit:

  • 1583 Northern Netherlands
  • 1600 Scotland
  • 1700 Russia
  • 1721 Tuscany
  • 1752 Britain and colonies

It should be noted that the people of many of the above countries celebrated the Roman New Year’s Day on January 1st long before their governments recognized it. Britain for example considered March 25th as the beginning of the legal year, like a tax year, while the general populace celebrated on December 31st as the year’s end.

In essence, as late as the 1700’s the English-speaking world was continuing the 3,000 year-old Roman tradition–a year starting in March and ending in December.

New Year’s Eve

Tonight as you count down to midnight, if you’re wondering why we picked such a completely random date to celebrate as the New Year—neither solstice nor equinox nor anniversary—take a moment to thank the folks of Segeda, Spain, a town that stood near present-day Zaragoza.


Up until the 2nd century B.C., the Roman civic calendar began in mid-March, around the spring equinox and the beginning of the planting season; officials convened in Rome on the full moon (Ides) of that month.

The number of the year was determined by which consuls were in office that term. e.g., the “8th year of the term of Glutimus Maximus”. [We use a similar system today in the West, though we don’t generally say it’s the “2009th year of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (2009 Anno Domini Nostri Jesu Christi). We just say 2009 A.D.]

Around 154 BC. the Romans were extending their empire westward into Spain, which was then inhabited by the Celtiberians. That year the Celtiberians of Segeda, having no respect for the Roman civic calendar, inconveniently rebelled while the government was not in session.

Rather than waiting until March to respond, the Romans called an “emergency session of Congress”, so to speak, in January, in order to appoint Quintus Filvius Nobilior as consul to deal with the western territories. His mission: go to Spain and kick some Celtiberian butt.

Filvius wasn’t very successful. In fact, it would be a hundred years before the peninsula was fully subdued.

But the January tradition stuck.

Most folks continued to celebrate the New Year in March as they always had. (Persians still do celebrate Norouz on the spring equinox.) But over the centuries the Julian calendar–implemented by Julius Caesar–replaced the older agrarian traditions.

15 centuries later Pope Gregory XIII overhauled the calendar to correct the 11 extra leap days that had misaligned the Julian calendar from the solstice. Northern Europe was the last to adopt the new “Gregorian” system. Britain, and by extension, the American colonies, only did so in 1752. Before that, most of us still considered March to be the start of the New Year.  March 25 to be exact–believed to be the anniversary of the conception of Christ back in 1 A.D.

So had the folks of Segeda just been a little more patient and waited a couple of months to rebel, we might still be celebrating New Year’s in March.

But as it is, we toast a cup ‘o’ kindness on December 31, to days of Auld Lang Syne, and to the Celtiberians who made this night possible.

See you in 2012!

Why the Fuss of January 1?

The Celtiberian War and Numantia

Al-Hijra 1433

~ November 26, 2011
~ November 14, 2012
~ November 3, 2013

Happy New Year!

What’s that? No party hats? No noise makers, or funny glasses with “1432” on them?

Nope, the Islamic New Year is a time of reflection and reverence, not outward celebration. The name Muharram itself–the first month of the Hijra calendar–means “holy” or “forbidden”. Muharram is one of the four “sacred” months (not including Ramadan), during which certain acts are forbidden.

“…the one that keeps a fast in the month of Muharram will receive the reward of thirty fasts for each fast.”

Details of the Hijra calendar are laid out in the Qur’an which states: “The number of the months according to Allah is twelve.” The number of days in each month is determined by the lunar cycle. The Qur’an condemns luni-solar calendars which insert an intercalary or leap period “one year and forbid it another year so that they may make up the number of the months which Allah has allowed in order to permit what Allah has forbidden.

In other words, the days and months of the year are set down by God, as are rules about when to abstain from certain activities ranging from fighting to eating to intercourse. So even if man tries to shift the months of the year for his convenience, this doesn’t change the natural timetable by which prescribed activities are allowed and forbidden.

Islam and the Moon

Islam’s use of the moon and the lunar cycle as the sole determinant of the year stands in stark contrast to luni-solar calendars that originated from earlier cultures, many of which worshipped a “sun-god”, be it Ra, Helios, or Mithra.

Today the crescent moon is the most widely recognized symbol of Islam, yet early Muslims used icon-free banners of various colors. The moon and star, symbols of Byzantium since the 4th century BC, spread across the Islamic world during the expansion of the Ottoman Empire.

Moon & Star Byzantine coin, ca. 100 AD

The Qur’an forbids worship of the moon or any other object. During the Prophet Abraham’s quest for God, Abraham first worships a “shining planet”, but when the star fades he says, “I love not those that disappear.” When the moon rises he says “This is my Lord.” But he is disillusioned when the moon sets as well. Finally, when sun rises, he says, “This is my Lord; this is the greatest of all” But like the moon and star, even the sun sets. Abraham at last proclaims, “I have devoted myself absolutely to the One who initiated the heavens and the earth. I will never be an idol worshipper.” [Qur’an 6:76-79]


The birthnight of Islam may have been Muhammad’s first revelation of the Quran by the Angel Gabriel in 610 CE. But the Year known as 1 in the Muslim calendar came over a decade later..

The Prophet Muhammad was living in Makkah, teaching Islam and monotheism to his followers, and thus angering the city’s governance. Even then Makkah was a pilgrimage destination, but for a very different reason. The Kaaba–the birthplace of monotheism in Islam–held idols of pagan gods worshipped by the many cults and clans around Makkah. Much of the power of city leaders rested on their perceived connection with pagan gods and idols.

Muhammad found support in the people of Medinah, who would travel the 200 miles distance to Makkah to meet with him and learn the ways of Islam. Muhammad refused to stop teaching Islam, despite offers of riches and power from government leaders if he did, and threats to his life if he didn’t. In September of 622 he cut his ties with the leaders of Makkah and led his followers north to Medinah to establish the world’s first city-state governed by the laws of the Qur’an.

Though today Makkah is the direction toward which Muslims pray and the destination of the Hajj, it was Muhammad’s departure of the city that set in motion the Islamic calendar. We’re beginning the 1430th year of Al-Hijra, or “the Migration.”

Months of the al-Hijra calendar

Muharram: Forbidden, holy
Safar: Whistling of the Wind
Rabi al-Awwal: First month of spring
Rabi al-Thani: Second month of spring
Jumada al-Awwal: First month of dryness (summer)
Jumada al-Thani: Second month of dryness
Rajab: To respect. One of the four sacred months, Rajab is also called Rajab al Fard (alone), because the other three sacred months are consecutive.
Shaban: Continual Increase
Ramadan: Intense heat
Shawwal: Uplift or breakage
Zul Qu’dah: To sit
Zul Hijjah: Pilgrimage (month of the Hajj)

The names derive from pre-Islamic times when the months coincided with the seasons.

[from Dec. 28 – 2008 – For the first time in over three decades Muslims will celebrate two ‘New Years’ in a single Gregorian calendar year. First, Al-Hijra 1429 on January 9/10 2008 CE and now 1430 AH on December 28/29. The next time this will happen will be in 2041 CE, so better make this one count!]


~ November 26, 2011
~ November 14, 2012
~ November 3, 2013

Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar.

But you won’t find fireworks displays or any celebrations akin to both Western and Eastern New Year traditions. On the first day of the year Muslims reflect upon the Hijra–the Prophet Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE.

Muharram procession. (Chan'ad Bahraini)

The Hijra is considered the beginning of the Islamic calendar; hence, years are referred to as AH (After Hijra).

During the month of Muharram, Muslims focus on the Islamic principles of sacrifice, selflessness, patience, and knowledge of Allah Ta’ala. It is also one of the four sacred months. Fasting during Muharram is not obligatory, but is encouraged during the first ten days, especially the tenth day, Ashura.

The Islamic calendar is approximately 355 days with twelve months of 29 to 30 days. For this reason the Islamic calendar does not usually coincide with the solar calendar, but falls about 10 days earlier each year.

The dates of Muslim holidays vary depending on the visibility of the lunar crescent. Unlike other lunar calendars which begin on the new moon, in the Islamic calendar a month begins when the crescent of the moon is first visible.

Though lunar cycles can be predicted, lunar sightings cannot, due to inclement skies and other atmospheric conditions. For this reason pre-printed calendars are not considered accurate, although they are necessary for planning. Saudi Arabia has adapted a standard calendar based on the lunar cycle as it would be viewed on a clear night from Mecca.

Islamic Star and Crescent

Observing the Islamic calendar, or Hijra calendar, is a sacred duty to all Muslims.

Prior to the Hijra in 622 CE much of the Arab world used a lunar calendar that was offset by an “Intercalculation,” or extra month, inserted every three or so years. The Intercalculation month was inserted by government astronomers to keep the lunar calendar in line with the solar calendar. But by arbitrarily manipulating the lunar cycle the dates of the four sacred months became corrupted. As the Qur’an explains in 9:36:

“The number of the months with Allah is twelve months by Allah’s ordinance in the day that He created the heavens and the earth. Four of them are sacred.”

During the sacred months sacred activities are observed and fighting is forbidden; thus it was/is vital that all Muslims be on the same calendar and that the sacred months not vary from state to state:

“Postponement (of a sacred month) is only an excess of disbelief whereby those who disbelieve are misled. They allow it one year and forbid it another year so that they may make up the number of the months which Allah has allowed in order to permit what Allah has forbidden.”[Qur’an 9:37]

Rosh Hashanah

September 29, 2011
September 17, 2012
September 5, 2013

Happy New Year!

It’s New Year’s in the Jewish calendar, but you won’t hear Jews counting down to midnight, or dropping a big sparkly ball from the Western Wall.

For one, the Jewish day—and thus all Jewish holidays—begin at sundown the night before. Second, Rosh Hashanah is not so much a time of celebration as a time of reflection and repentance.

Despite its name, “Head of the Year”, Rosh Hashanah actually marks the beginning of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. The first month is known as Nisan, which falls in the spring.

The Hebrew Calendar actually has four “New Year’s”:

1. In Winter, Tu B’Shevat is the New Year of Trees, originally the day farmers took inventory of trees for tax purposes.

2. In Spring, Jews welcome Nisan as the “first” month of the year, as God commanded Moses in the Jewish holy book, the Torah.

This month hall be considered by you as the First of the Months; it is the First for you of the months of the year.” — Exodus 12:2

3. In Summer, Rosh Chodesh Elul is the New Year of Animals, during which animals and property were counted.

4. Yet, it’s in the Fall that the big New Year is celebrated. According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah marks the sixth day after creation, the birthday of humanity. Thus, the beginning of the relationship between God and man.

Just as Tu B’Shevat and Rosh Chodesh Elul call for an inventory of property, Rosh Hashanah requires an inventory of the soul. Some scriptures say it’s during this time that God sits upon a throne with a book entailing the deeds of each human life. Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of a ten-day period of introspection, collectively known as the High Holy Days, which culminates with the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur.

During this time, practicing Jews attend special services at their local synagogue where Rosh Hashanah is marked with the blowing of a ram’s horn known as a shofar. Traditional Rosh Hashanah foods include apples and honey, previously collected this season, to symbolize sweetness in the coming year.

This year Rosh Hashanah marks the first day of the year 5771 in the Jewish calendar.