The New Year as currently celebrated in Western Europe (and from there in European-colonized places like the USA, Canada, and Australia) started in 45 BCE with the adoption of the Julian calendar, instituted by the Roman emperor Julius Caesar. However, this was far from the only way to celebrate the New Year, then and now. Traditional Chinese and Jewish New Years are both calculated on a lunar cycle and typically fall in early spring and autumn, respectively. The Iranian or Persian New Year is celebrated on the spring solstice (around March 21). And during the Middle Ages in Europe, depending on where a person lived, they might have celebrated the New Year on any number of days. In fact, across history and the world, there’s not a single time of year that hasn’t played host to the New Year in at least one culture. (Don’t believe me? Check out this list of different New Year’s days on Wikipedia.)
This matters to us as speculative artists because we are in the business, one way or another, of creating worlds that don’t exist, and part of doing that is thinking about how those worlds would work, and how the people in them think and go about the daily lives that are about to be disrupted by whatever adventures we’re plotting for them. This is particularly true for writers, but I would suggest it matters to game developers, concept designers, illustrators, and other artists as well to think about how the world they’re creating works, and to make a conscious effort not to just repeat the unconscious assumptions of our own cultures when we’re creating those worlds.
Give yourself a moment to think: When does the year start for the people of the place I’m creating? Why? What’s the story that people tell about that time? How do people celebrate? Is it appropriate (or even required) to give gifts, or clean house in preparation, or wear new clothes, or eat particular kinds of food?
In ancient Egypt, the year was divided into three seasons based around the flooding of the Nile River—Flood, Emergence, and Low Water. The year began with the flood, lasting roughly from what we think of now as June to September. Why? Because for the common people, farmers on a thin swath of fertile soil created by those annual floods and surrounded by inhospitable desert, the river controlled what work needed to be done and when it could be done, so the whole of their year revolved around that.
Think of the difference between both that and the four agriculture-based seasons most of us live with, and a calendar created by, say, a society that evolved underground, completely disconnected from the sun, moon, stars, and the elements? Perhaps they would build their calendar around the time when permafrost made the ground too hard to dig, or perhaps they would ignore the cues of the natural world altogether and build their calendar around the story of a god or cultural hero or historical dates.
Of course, this kind of reasoning doesn’t hold true just for the start of the New Year. What kinds of holidays does your culture celebrate? Spring and fall equinoxes and summer and winter solstices might be an easy answer, but does that make the most sense for your culture? Or are there other, more unique holidays that you could give them? The birth or death of a cultural or mythological hero might be interesting, or the day that a particular monster or villain was defeated. The day of the first frost might be significant to them, or the rising of a nebula or quasar that’s visible from part of their planet. Or maybe they reset their calendar when they left their world of origin behind.
How are holidays marked? With group prayer, private contemplation, community gatherings? With celebration, or with penance? If gifts are given, are certain kinds of gifts traditional?
Most importantly, what do your characters think of all of this? Does your heroine hate the fuss around the New Year, or miss being around her family when it comes? Does your hero have the money to buy a new traditional outfit, or does he clean up his old one as well as he can to avoid pity and shame? Or maybe your point of view character is from a minority culture within the larger one that celebrates its own holidays in opposition to the dominant way in their city. How do people look on that minority group and their practices? How do they think about the dominant culture and their ways?
Above all, remember that the people in this world of yours are people, as varied as the ones in our world. They think and feel and believe different things about the world around them. Give them a unique culture to react to, but never forget that their reactions are still going to be their own, not just a monolithic mirror of the worldview that you’ve created.
Whenever and however you celebrate the New Year, we at the Dream Foundry hope yours is full of brightness, wonder, and creativity!