A Shortlisted Guide to Calendars and New Year Traditions

In Hong Kong, we have officially entered the Year of the Dog on the Chinese calendar. As the Lunar New Year festivities carry on until the 2nd of March, culminating in this year’s Lantern Festival, you may want to spend a few minutes of the holidays reflecting on how and why different cultures celebrate their New Years’ on different dates. If that’s the case, then you’ve found the right article.


Different New Years on Different Calendars

A calendar year, as most people think, is based on the time it takes for the earth to orbit the sun. However, this is only true for solar calendar systems. There are three different types of calendar systems in use today: solar, lunar and lunisolar – each with their own way of counting and keeping track of the time.

The Gregorian Calendar, which has been accepted as the norm internationally, is the most widely used calendar today. This solar calendar starts its New Year on the 1st of January. Thanks to Dionysius’ idea of counting the numbers of years since the birth of Jesus Christ, we have celebrated 2018 New Years’ (Dionysius’ math has turned out to be debatable however, so we can’t actually be sure that Jesus would be 2018 years old).


The Lunar Calendar

The Islamic New Year is calculated according to the Islamic Lunar Calendar. This type of calendar differs from the Gregorian Calendar in the way that it counts cycles of the Moon’s phases, so a month in the Islamic Lunar Calendar would be equivalent to the time period between two full moons – which is precisely 29.53059 days. This means that an Islamic year, or Hijri year, is approximately 11 days shorter than a Gregorian year.

While the Gregorian calendar started on a significant event for Christians, the birth of Jesus, the Islamic Lunar Calendar has its origins in the Gregorian year of 622. This marks the year where the Prophet Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina. Keeping the shorter years of the Islamic Lunar calendar in mind, we are today in the Hijri year of 1439.

Fun fact: Because of the Islamic Calendar’s shorter years, the Gregorian year and the Hijri year will align in the year of 20874.

A possibly not-so-fun fact: In this Gregorian year, the Islamic New Year will take place from September 11th – 12th. The majority of Muslims spend the public holiday attending prayer sessions – so for anyone who thinks otherwise, remember it’s a New Year celebration and nothing else.


Full moon (Source: Joonas kääriäinen)


The Lunisolar Calendar

China and Hong Kong have adopted the Gregorian calendar for most official purposes, but the traditional Chinese Lunisolar Calendar is still used to determine the dates of traditional festivals, such as the Lunar New Year.

Being a lunisolar calendar, the traditional Chinese calendar uses both the moon’s cycles and the earth’s orbit around the sun to count time. The months are a little shorter than those of the Gregorian calendar, since it follows the moons cycles – much like the Islamic Lunar Calendar. Since this made the seasons a bit confusing, an entire leap month was added to the calendar every 32nd or 33rd month, meaning that every 2nd or 3rd year in the Chinese Lunisolar Calendar has 383 – 385 days.

This is also the reason why the Lunar New Year falls on different dates every year, since it all depends on when the new moon of the first lunar month will arrive. The leap month does however ensure that the date is somewhat stable and will normally occur between the 21st of January and the 20th of February.

The Chinese Lunisolar Calendar is thought to be one of the world’s oldest calendars, with historians dating it back to the years of the Emperor Huang Ti – which would make this year the year 4655 in the Chinese Calendar.

Fun fact: The latest calendar to be used by an entire country is the  Juche Calendar in North Korea. Adopted in 1997, it began with Kim Jong-Un’s grandfather, Kim Il-Sung’s birth in 1912, which makes this year Juche 107.


So, What About the New Years’ Traditions?

Now that we understand how astronomical cycles affects the calendar, let’s take a look at some of the ways different cultures celebrate the leap from one year to another.

DENMARK – As a Dane, I was shocked to find that some articles on the Internet cite smashing dinner places on friends’ doors as a Danish New Year tradition. The next day, the amount of broken china on your doorstep serves as an indicator of how many friends you have. In reality, no one seems to do this in Denmark. Instead, we watch the Queen’s New Year Speech, get drunk on champagne while eating Kransekage (A marzipan-based cake), and jump from a chair into the new year at the stroke of midnight.

THAILAND – Adopting a Lunisolar calendar, the Buddhist New Year in Thailand, which is also known as the Songkran, falls on the 13th of April every year. A long-standing Songkran tradition is the three-day long water fight, where entire streets are closed down so people can wash away their “bad luck” with super soakers and enter the new year stress-free.

SPAIN – In Spain, it’s tradition to quickly eat a grape each time the bell chimes after midnight on New Year’s Eve, with one grape representing each month of the new year. There seems to be no explanation for this tradition, except to usher in a year of good luck and prosperity.

ECUADOR – Rock, Paper, Scissors, Fire. Nothing beats fire, and the Ecuadorians know this. That’s why the biggest New Year tradition in Ecuador is to sculpt a human-like figure out of Papier-mâché – which symbolizes everything that has gone wrong for you in the past year – then setting it ablaze to literally burn the badness of the old year away.

SOUTH AFRICA – In certain neighbourhoods of Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa, residents have been known to throw out old furniture from their houses and apartment blocks to usher in the new year. However, severe crackdowns and neighbourhood watches from the police have seemed to tame this since 2014.


Men splashing water onto a passing Tuk-Tuk in Thailand (Credits: Madeleine Deaton)
Año Viejo tradition in Ecuador (Credits: Juan Pablo González)


What to Take Away From All This?

If you’re one of those people who love to set up New Year’s resolutions for yourself, only to abandon them later, then be sure use this guide to your advantage.

There are numerous New Years that take place around the world every month. According to Quora user, Brady Postma, it could even be possible to attend 60 different New Years in a year if you’re made out of money. So even if you don’t succeed the first time with doing 20 sit-ups a day or learning French, you can always travel to a new country, have another new year and start again.

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