6 New Year’s Traditions From History You Won’t Believe Used To Be A Thing

by JR Thorpe
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Celebrating the New Year is an occasion for many of us to watch fireworks, make resolutions, party — or go to bed early and enjoy the quiet streets the next morning. For centuries, however, the beginning of the new year was a very big deal in many societies, and they held many rituals, traditions and ceremonies to celebrate it. Some of them are slightly more recognizable than others. Drunken revelry? Definitely. Cake and feasting? Sounds like fun. Hunting a duck that doesn't actually exist? Perhaps not. These six New Year's traditions from history are some bizarre examples of how people used to ring in the new year.

We can all sympathize with the impulse to make a big deal out of New Year: it was a hugely symbolic time for a lot of agricultural societies, as many of them timed it at the start of spring or warmer weather, when crops could begin growing again. Vestiges of old New Year's traditions still linger, whether it's telling fortunes, celebrating together, giving gifts or wearing lucky underwear to begin the year with good, fresh luck. However, it's not surprising that some of the more intense New Year's traditions have fallen out of favor in recent centuries. Though I vote to bring the giant parade of phallus statues back. Here are six New Year's traditions from history you'll be glad aren't a thing anymore.


Marrying A Goddess — And Then Divorcing Her

In the ancient city of Babylon, the year followed an annual religious pattern of holy marriage and then holy acrimony. The major goddess was Ishtar and the major god was Marduk, and every New Year, writes historian Michael Gagarin, "she married Marduk in a sacred marriage [...] and every year she was divorced and sent off with insults for infidelity." At other points in history, Ishtar "married" the king every year at New Year to highlight his holy power. And you thought Christmas weddings were attention-grabby.


2.Processions With Giant Phallic Statues

Ancient Greece had a variety of traditional festivals around the New Year during its long history, but many of them evolved from the same root: a festival celebrating Dionysus, the god of wine and religious ecstasy. What began as a small procession escorting a phallic statue to a temple in Athens, writes historian William Crump, became a massive festival involving drama competitions that were entered by the likes of Euripides.

It also had a child-friendly side — sort of. The procession, says Crump, involved "a baby in a winnowing basket" to symbolize Dionysus himself, but also "the orphans of those who had perished in war," dressed up in battle gear to "receive the blessings" of the people of Athens.


Pouring Molten Lead Into Water

A collection of Lancastrian folklore from 1872 mentions a New Year's tradition about telling fortunes. If a girl wants to know what kind of man she'll marry, the superstition says, "on New Year's Eve she pours some melted lead into a glass of water and observes what forms the drops assume. If they resemble scissors, she concludes that she must rest satisfied with a tailor." Other suggested shapes include hammers, though it's not clear what a young woman was meant to do if all her molten lead looked like blobs.


Making A Model Of An Old Woman And Then "Killing" It

Crump notes that in villages in rural Italy, it was once popular to make a model of the "oldest woman in town" out of wood and puppet materials on New Year. The villagers would parade it through the village, then chop it in half in a ceremony known as "Sawing The Old Woman," to symbolize getting rid of the old and preparing for the new.


"Hunting" An Invisible Duck

Every 100 years — the next event will be in 2101 — on the old mid-January date of New Year's, over 100 academics at All Soul's College, Oxford, participate in a thoroughly strange ritual called "Hunting The Mallard." It involves an elected Lord Mallard being carried on a chair around the college singing the "Mallard Song", a lengthy ditty about ducks, while the rest of the academics occasionally join in. Apparently there was a real mallard centuries ago, but this particular tradition no longer involves any real birds to speak of — just a lot of very raucous behavior.


Electing Fake Abbots Who Performed Satirical Church Services

For the people of medieval France, the festival of New Year occurred at around the beginning of spring, and it was one of the biggest celebrations of the entire calendar — and a chance to get thoroughly wild. Daniel Diehl and Mark P. Donnelly write in Medieval Celebrations that the New Year brought the "Feast Of Fools," where peasants could pretend to be lords and everything in society went topsy-turvy for several days. They even had false priests: French towns elected fake clergy called "abbots of bad government," who were allowed to hold satirical Christian ceremonies in church — and instead of the audience responding "Amen," "the solemn refrain was replaced by Hee-Haw, like a donkey's bray."

However you celebrate New Year, be grateful that it's not likely to get wilder than a bit of partying — and that nobody's threatening to make a wooden model of you to saw in half.