The Babylonians were the first to celebrate New Year’s festivities known as Akitu. This Spring Equinox festival began on the first days of the Babylonian year being in the months of March, or April – when soil was ready for sewing of barley. The named given to the “beginning of the year” was rêš šattim.
The festival was a conglomerate of celebrations lasting 12 days and were carried out at two locations: in the temple of the supreme god Marduk, the Esaglia, and the ‘house of the New year’ which was situated north of the city. The two gods at the center of the festival were Nabû and his father, the supreme god Marduk, who in the first millenium BCE, was usually called by the name ‘Bêl’, Lord, because his real name was considered too holy to be pronounced.
One activity practiced during the 12 days was the humiliation and slapping of The King. He would be struck across the face and if tears formed, he kept his place on the throne. Perhaps this was also the beginning of ‘crocodile tears’ – the fake tears people shed when the situation calls for a good, theatrical sobbing. It’s certainly safe to say present day Kings and world leaders are pleased that this portion of New Year’s is no longer practiced.
The Akitu festival continued for centuries, and not only in Babylon. In Palmyra, the temple of Baal (another spelling) was inaugurated on the same date as Akitu. At the beginning of the third century CE, it was still celebated in Emessa in Syria, to honor the god Elagabal; the Roman emperor Heliogabalus (218-222) even introduced the festival in Ital. (Livius)
It is simple to see how Christmas and New Year’s celebrations were transformed from the ancient Babylonia to today’s traditions; food, drink, song and dance.
– altered by Hystoria