Many years before the civilized world came to recognize January 1st as the conventional beginning of the New Year, different cultures around the world celebrated the beginning of the New Year at different times. Regardless of the exact date, a by-product of the New Year was a celebration that was often marked with the exchange of a small gift or even a new year's card. In some cultures the exchange of cards and gifts has given way to greetings and festivities, but the idea remains a cross-cultural one, as we bid goodbye the end of one year and salute the beginning of another.
The Celtics didn't have much use for a New Years card, but instead used to give a gift of mistletoe at the beginning of the New Year. The Romans likewise gave sprigs of leaves as a gift. Later on, the Roman in the time of Julius Caesar was big on giving gifts at the end of the year. In fact, they were pretty good about New Years Eve parties also. The Romans were quite famous for their end-of-year bashes which include New Year cards and endless orgies.
The English, meanwhile, did things a little bit differently. English royalty during the time of Queen Elizabeth were quite fanatical about exchanging expensive gifts at the end of the year. The Queen in particular was very good about giving as well as receiving. But with the fall of her regime to the Puritans, this gift-giving practice came to an end.
The exchange of gifts and New Year cards at the end of the year was also a tradition among the English that was exported to America in the 1700's. When the English settled in the New World they continued this tradition of gift and New Year card exchange. This tradition hasn't really perpetuated itself in America over the years. Although in some areas, specifically the French Quarter in New Orleans the tradition of exchanging gifts and New Year cards continues. As it does still in France in present times.
The Scots on the other hand, were not permitted to celebrate Christmas and created their own celebration instead. The New Year feat was the biggest of the year in Scotland. The exchange of gifts and New Year cards wasn't as popular as the practice of young boys caroling door to door as they begged for food and money. This practice continues to this day as packs of youngsters sing the following song in villages across the Wetlands:
" I wish you a Merry Christmas
And a Happy New Year,
A pocketful of money
And a cellar full of beer,
And a good fat pig
To serve you all the year."
In addition to being the most important holiday, the celebration of the New Year may garner the most attention in Japan. The Japanese celebrate the end of the year with a "Bonenkai" ("forget-the-year") party. Symbolically at least, these Forget-the-year parties are a way to say farewell to all the problems of one year and start anew in the next. Besides giving gifts of money, the Japanese embrace quite dearly the tradition of exchanging New Year cards. In fact the Japanese post office promises all New Year cards will be delivered by 1 January if they are post marked by a certain date.