Every year it’s the same thing. Some diapered little baby is paraded around wearing a sash with the new year written on it. Who hasn’t been to a New Year’s Party that ended that way, huh? Okay, me neither. But the Baby New Year is still an iconic image that even popped up in a really bad sequel to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Baby. Usually in concert with the Baby New Year there is also a wizened old man with a ZZ Top beard. But this article isn’t about that. It’s about that naked baby.
The use of an infant as a symbol of the start of the new cycle that begins with the passage of the year dates back to ancient Greece. The festival of Dionysus, who was the god of wine, song and merriment let us not forget, was a big thing for the Greeks. No doubt the festival of Dionysus often ended long after the womenfolk had been sent to bed and each male reveler had left his male Greek friends behind to unsteadily walk home to the little woman.
Before these parties got down to the good stuff, however, it was the custom of the time to parade a newborn baby around in a basket. The baby was a symbol and a herald for fertility of the crops. (Probably just the crops since Greek style doesn’t produce much in the way of offspring.
None so’s you want to keep, anyway.) Across that big lake, the Egyptians were also fond of holding a ceremony of rebirth that involved the use of a young baby. In fact, there was a specific ceremonial ritual involving a young man and an older bearded man carrying a baby inside a basket that was discovered on the lid of a sarcophagus that is now on display in a museum.
The symbol of a Baby New Year was ubiquitous throughout the pagan religions so it should come as no surprise that the Catholic Church disallowed it for centuries. Finally, thanks to a fact that Bush seems incapable of grasping—that it is next to impossible to kill an idea that people cleave to with all their might—the Catholic Church gave in and allowed infants to be used in New Year celebrations. Okay, they made one adjustment. The Baby New Year was transformed from a pagan symbol into a symbol of the Baby Christ.
The contemporary image of the Baby New Year comes to us, like the Christmas tree, courtesy of those fun-loving, always-with-the-joke Germans. It was the Germans, you see, who first slapped a diaper on the Baby New Year. The newly diapered Baby New Year first cropped up in German woodcarving illustrations in the 1300s. When the German immigrants poured into Pennsylvania they brought with them the Christmas tree, Groundhog Day and our current image of the Baby New Year.