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Weird and Wonderful New Year's Traditions from Around the World
New year, new celebration.
As the year comes to a close, many of us are preparing for year-end celebrations with friends and family. Those celebrations often come with traditions that feel as universal as breathing, but new year celebrations differ widely across cultures and across time.
People celebrate the ending of a year and the beginning of a new one in different ways and on different days. Even within a culture, there are variations on a theme or people who abstain from outward celebrations outright. No culture is a monolith and yet, traditions ferment within groups of people and bubble to the surface. Some people in some parts of the world won't celebrate the new year for another month or so. The Chinese New Year, which is determined by a lunisolar calendar, won’t take place until February 10, 2024. On the flip side, Rosh Hashanah, which roughly translates to “head of the year,” takes place on the first and second of Tishrei, on the Hebrew calendar. It occurred from September 15 - 17, 2023.
How People Celebrate the New Year All Over the World
If you’re an observer of the Gregorian calendar then you’re staring down the barrel of the new year on January 1. In the United States, where I live, we tend to celebrate by staying up too late, indulging a bit too much, and making some noise at midnight. Some people like to light fireworks (to the dismay of dogs and dog-owners everywhere), others like to bang pots and pans (see previous), while others prefer to stay home and cue up Star Wars so that the Death Star blows up at midnight (hit play at 10:02:43 and don’t pause for potty breaks). If you’re looking for alternate ways to celebrate the new year, check out some of these suggestions from other parts of the world.
Brazil - Wear White
If you’re celebrating in Brazil, or you want to celebrate like the Brazilians do, step number one is getting ready to party. Every year they throw a massive celebration on the beach in Rio de Janeiro, complete with musical performers and a fireworks display. Whether you’re going out for the festivities or staying home with family and friends, you’re going to want to wear white. Brazilian New Year has a dress code. It doesn't matter if it's an all-white three-piece suit or you're dressed like a shark with a mustache, as long as there's some white.
The story goes that when Nigerians first arrived in Brazil, they wore white clothes while performing religious ceremonies. Over time, the dates of those ceremonies shifted to align with the European calendar and the practice of wearing white clothing was co-opted. Today, everyone wears white because everyone wears white, but it hearkens back to an indigenous practice from another continent.
Spain - Eating 12 Grapes
You can eat whatever you want on New Year’s Eve as long as it includes at least 12 grapes. The goal is to eat each of the 12 grapes in time with the tolling of a midnight bell. If you pull it off, you’re supposed to have luck and prosperity in the coming year.
The origin of this tradition is a matter of some debate. One story is that a surplus grape harvest in 1909 made its way to the people just in time for end of year celebrations, but recent evidence has emerged with a funnier explanation. Toward the end of the 19th Century, Spanish aristocrats started celebrating the way the French did, by drinking champagne and eating grapes.
Seeing this frivolity on display, the Spanish poor started doing the same as a way of mocking the upper class, even taking to the streets to eat their grapes in public at the clock tower in Puerta del Sol Square. These days, thousands of people gather at the clock tower every year to eat their midnight grapes and party until the Sun comes up.
Japan - Year Forgetting Parties
In truth, the Japanese practice of Bonekai doesn’t sound all that different from the sorts of ragers you’ve probably been to from time to time. Year forgetting party is just a more evocative name. These year-end get-togethers are often held between friends or co-workers as a way of letting off steam as a group.
During these parties you can disregard the usual social dynamics such as the boss-employee relationship and cut loose. The basic idea is to forget the problems of the previous year and look forward to the future, usually by getting totally blasted.
Greece - Onions and Coin Cakes
Among other more conventional celebrations, Greek households are known for hanging onions on their doors. The historical wisdom dating back centuries is that onions are a symbol of growth, rebirth, and fertility. Hanging them on doors is a way of conjuring up those qualities in the year to come. Children are also woken on New Year’s Day by tapping onions on their heads. Again, this is ostensibly to grant them with good fortune in the new year but also, we suspect, because it’s kind of fun to bop someone with a root vegetable.
Later, on New Year’s Day, the kids and adults gather to eat the traditional Vasilopita, a sweet cake with a coin hidden inside. Whoever receives the slice with the coin is said to have a banner year coming their way. Not to mention a piece of cake and some pocket money.
Scotland - Hogmanay
Precisely what this word means is context dependent. It sometimes refers only to the last day of the year; other times it also refers to the celebrations on the following day. Still other times it refers to the entire year-end/beginning period. In any case, it’s rad.
One of the oldest traditions is that of first-footing. It’s the practice of being the first person to enter the home of a friend or neighbor bearing a small gift. Usually a bit of food or drink. This practice can continue well into the next day and even into the first couple weeks of January. In the meantime, there’s more partying to do.
In some parts of Scotland, Hogmanay is celebrated with the most hardcore game you’ve never heard of: fireball swinging. Participants craft huge metal spheres out of chicken wire and fill them with newspaper, straw, wood, basically anything they can find that will burn. Then they attach them to chains or rope, light ‘em up and whip them around like the world is ending and not just the year.
Scotland is also the origin of the song "Auld Lang Syne," which has become the default anthem for New Year’s Eve across much of the world. One has to wonder why the fireball swinging didn’t catch on, as well.
However, whenever, and wherever you celebrate, we hope you have a happy new year. And if you need something to kill some time at a bad party, check out the wide variety of content streaming now on Peacock!