On December 31 here in the US you can turn on the TV throughout the day and watch folks around the world welcome the new year with street celebrations and fireworks. And off-screen, people in many countries still perform traditional rituals to see out the old and bring in the new. Here’s just a taste of some of those customs from different parts of the world.
Scotland, the country that gave us “Auld Lang Syne,” celebrates the New Year as Hogmanay (hog-mah-NAY). The origins of the word have been traced variously to Gaelic, French, and Scandinavian, but, whatever its source, the name has stuck. A central tradition of Hogmanay is “first-footing.” Soon after the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s eve, Scots pay visits to their neighbors bringing along gifts and New Year’s wishes. In the past, the visitor might bring things like a piece of coal or salt, but the most common traditional gifts to survive to the present are shortbread and whiskey. Traditionally, if the first visitor was a tall, dark man, this a sign of especially good luck for the coming year. Some fellows must be in high demand at midnight. And, yes, they also join hands and sing “Auld Lang Syne.”
New Year’s day is a particularly special occasion in Greece because it is also the Feast of St. Basil, one of the forefathers of the Greek Orthodox Church. The traditions include the baking of Vassilopitta (Basil’s bread) with a coin buried in the dough. The one who finds the coin in their serving will have good luck all year.
In Japan, New Year’s Day is one of the most important holidays of the year. In December, Bonenkai or “forget-the-year parties” are often held. Osoji, a thorough house cleaning – a symbolic fresh start – is an important ritual leading up to New Year’s Eve celebrations, and various traditional foods are prepared. Also debts must be paid and any disagreements resolved. At midnight, bells in Buddhist temples ring 108 times to eliminate the 108 earthly desires or defilements by which we humans are plagued. On New Year’s day, children receive otoshidamas, small gifts with money inside.
Grapes, plates and Christmas trees
There are many other traditions. Spaniards eat twelve grapes on New Year’s eve to ensure twelve good months in the new year. The Dutch burn their Christmas trees in great bonfires in the street to purge the old year. The Irish predict the political future according to which way the wind blows at midnight. And in Denmark it is good luck to find a pile of broken dishes on your doorstep on New Year’s morning.
And of course, not all New Year’s celebrations take place on December 31. The lunar Year of the Rat will be ushered in by many Asian cultures on January 25, 2020. The next Islamic New Year begins on August 19, 2020, and the next Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) begins on Friday, September 18, 2020.
Tell us about New Year’s traditions in your culture. We’d love to pass them on.