Even when the year is regarded as a basic division of time, the calculation is often based not (or not exclusively) on the sun and the moon but on the visibility of certain constellations; in tropical and subtropical areas, it is based with special frequency on the heliacal early rising of the Pleiades.The beginning of the year, or the "New Year," is often not a precise and fixed date that is astronomically determined (e.g., by equinoxes or solstices).
Whereas New Year ceremonies vary widely from culture to culture, their meaning is essentially concerned with the phenomenon of transition or passage in its two aspects of "elimination" and "inauguration." What is old, exhausted, weakened, inferior, and harmful is to be eliminated, and what is new, fresh, powerful, good, and healthy is to be introduced and ensured.
The first aspect finds expression in ceremonies of dissociation, purification, destruction, and so on.
In most hunting and food-gathering cultures New Year ceremonies take place at a time when food is beginning to be scarce.
In Australia this is usually toward the end of the dry period (in many parts of Australia the rainy season begins in October, in other parts in December).
A phenomenological consideration of the traits common to New Year festivals must therefore be supplemented by a detailed examination of the form they have taken in the context of particular cultures.
This kind of detailed analysis is extensively provided in works by Vittorio Lanternari (1959, 1976).
The San of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa also conduct their New Year ceremonies at the beginning of the rainy season.
Among the Selknam (in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago) and the Andaman Islanders, the ceremonies focus chiefly on banishing the bad (cold or stormy) season of the year; elsewhere the emphasis is on inaugurating the good season with its abundant food (as in the ceremonies of the Australian Aborigines, which aim at an increase in certain species of animals).
Where sacrifices of firstlings are customary, they are offered immediately after a successful hunt.
The term fishing cultures is here used in a broad sense to include those peoples who hunt chiefly marine mammals or even other sea animals, such as tortoises.