New Year's Customs Around the World
Originally published: December 2013
In the United States, New Year’s Eve (December 31) is a time when people celebrate the start of a new year with family and friends. Folks eat, drink and make toasts to health and happiness, while rejoicing in the good and lamenting the bad of the previous year. Resolutions and predictions for the coming year are made and there’s a spirit of hope throughout the country. New York City’s famous Times Square ball drop begins at one minute before midnight and is televised in the US and around the world. Across the country, cities and towns hold their own versions of the grand ball drop event as well.
The start of a new year has been celebrated by civilizations around the globe for thousands of years. In most countries today, New Year’s festivities begin on December 31, but some celebrate it at other times. And, even where the date is the same, the customs often differ.
Brief History of New Year’s Celebrations
According to History.com, the earliest recorded festivities in honor of the new year date back 4,000 years to ancient Babylon. The first day of the new year then was the first new moon following the vernal equinox. The occasion was marked by a religious festival spanning 11 days, with a different ritual on each day. Throughout antiquity, civilizations developed increasingly sophisticated calendars that set the first day of the new year to an agricultural or astronomical event.
It wasn't until 46 B.C. that Roman Emperor Julius Caesar introduced the Julian calendar and instituted January 1 as the first day of the year. Romans celebrated the new year by offering sacrifices, exchanging gifts, decorating their homes with laurel branches and giving or attending raucous parties. Christian leaders in medieval Europe temporarily replaced January 1 with days having more religious significance including December 25 (birth of Jesus) and March 25 (Feast of the Annunciation). However, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII reestablished January 1 as New Year’s Day based on the calendar then established as the Gregorian calendar, which is the one in use by most nations today.
How New Year’s is Practiced Around the World Today
Officially, China recognizes January 1 as the first day of the new year. Culturally, the first day of the Chinese New Year in 2016, the Year of the Monkey, will be February 8, however. Chinese New Year is based on the Chinese lunar calendar and preparations begin seven days before New Year’s Eve. They include a thorough cleaning of the house to sweep out any bad luck from the old year, buying decorations, presents, and purchasing new clothes (especially for children). The Spring Festival (start of the new year) is considered the omen for the new year. Words related to “sickness”, “death”, “killing”, “ghost”, etc. are forbidden lest they bring bad results in the new year. Street celebrations include a traditional lion dance, which is supposed to bring good luck. On the head of the lion is a mirror so that evil spirits will be frightened away by their own reflections.
In Ecuador the New Year is celebrated on January 1 and is a time when bad luck and grievances of the previous year are forgotten. Effigies (año viejos) are created of just about anyone including popular cartoon characters and real political figures. The viejos are then filled with fireworks and burned in the streets. Men, dressed in women’s clothing, assume the role of the widows of the viejos. They dance in the streets, begging for money to pay for the husbands’ funerals.
The Ethiopian calendar has 13 months — 12 months of 30 days plus five or six days that comprise month 13. New Year’s Day begins in September when the country’s long rainy period has ended. In 2014, the Ethiopian New Year will fall on September 12. Customs include families sharing a traditional meal of flat bread and stew and young girls in new clothes gathering flowers and presenting them to friends while singing traditional New Year’s songs.
In Germany, New Year’s eve is called “Silvester” after the 4th century Pope Sylvester I, whose feast day is observed on December 31. The Germans celebrate New Year’s Eve with fireworks, champagne and boisterous social gatherings. Customs include dropping molten lead into cold water; the shape of the lead resulting in a prediction of the future. Also, a portion of the food eaten on New Year’s Eve is left on plates until after midnight to ensure plentiful food in the coming year. Since the early 1970’s, it has also become traditional for Germans to watch the TV recording of “Dinner for One”, a black and white British comedy sketch filmed in Germany in 1963. This obscure film, which has nothing to do with New Year’s, has become a unique New Year’s Eve ritual in Germany and in other German speaking areas.
As in Germany, New Year’s Eve is called “Silvester”. Some of the New Year’s traditions include making a lot of noise to scare off demons and evil spirits. Sewing or doing laundry on New Year’s Day is considered unlucky. If the first visitor on the 1st day of the new year is a male, it is considered lucky; if a woman, unlucky. Washing your face in cold water, especially with a red apple added to the water, is supposed to increase your chances of staying healthy in the new year. In Hungary they also burn effigies as in Ecuador, but in Hungary the scapegoat is known as “Jack Straw”, who is carried around the village before being burnt. Jack Straw is believed to be an embodiment of the evil and misfortune of the past year.
Israel uses the Gregorian calendar but does not formally celebrate New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day on December 31/January 1. The Jewish New Year is celebrated during Rosh Hashanah, which will occur on September 25 in 2014. The date of the holiday changes each year based on the lunisolar Hebrew calendar, which is used primarily for Jewish religious observances. Customs include sounding the shofar (an instrument often made of a ram’s horn) and eating symbolic foods like applies dipped in honey, which stems from an age-old Jewish tradition of eating sweet foods to express the hope for a sweet new year.
Since 1873, the Japanese New Year as been celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar on January 1. At midnight December 31, Buddhist temples in Japan ring their bells 108 times to symbolically remove the 108 human sins in Buddhist belief. Another custom is creating boiled sticky rice cakes, called mochi, which are eaten during the beginning of January. Mochi is also made into a New Year’s decoration called kagami mochi, which is formed from two round cakes of mochi with a tangerine placed on top.
New Year’s Eve in the Netherlands is generally celebrated with families gathering together to play board games and watch (on tv) hilarious summaries of the previous year presented by popular Dutch comedians. At midnight, the families often rush out into the streets and shoot off fireworks. One of the Dutch New Year’s Eve (December 31) traditions, beginning after World War II, is shooting carbides. Dutch farmers fill up their old milk cans with carbide and water, then hammer the caps back on the cans and heat them up, resulting in homemade cannons. On New Year’s Day morning, thousands of revelers strip down to their underwear and sprint into the freezing North Sea, lakes or canals.
As in many other parts of the world, New Year’s is celebrated on December 31/January 1 in Russia. Generally a family holiday, traditions include gathering for a late meal and watching a pre-recorded address by the country’s president on TV, which concludes with the Russian national anthem at midnight. In addition to feasting and toasts, people exchange gifts and view firework displays in celebration. Due to the fact that Christmas celebrations were banished during the Soviet era, Russian’s moved those holiday traditions to New Year’s. Children wake up on New Year’s Day to gifts from Grandfather Frost (Ded Moroz), the Russian Santa Claus. The traditional decorated tree is considered a New Year’s tree and stays up until the Russian Orthodox Christmas on January 7.
Saudi Arabia and many other countries follow the Islamic calendar, which is made up of 12 months and about 354 days. The first month is called Muharram and the 1st day of the new year is the first day of Muharram (Al-Hijra). Al-Hijra commemorates the migration of the Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina in 622CE. In 2014, Al-Hijra will occur on October 25 by the Gregorian calendar. There is no specific religious ritual required on this day and no public celebrations. However, people do greet each other with “kul aam wintum bekhair” (may every year see you well) and families usually get together. The Islamic New Year is a public holiday in places including, but not limited to, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates.
New Year’s in Scotland, and in some other parts of the United Kingdom, includes an old superstition called “First Footing”. According to this superstition, good luck comes if the first person to set foot in the house on New Year’s Day (January 1) is a tall, dark haired man — especially if he brings a gift of food or coal, which ensures there will be no lack of food or warmth in the household. On New Year’s Day, Scottish children rise early and visit their neighbors singing songs. They are given coins, mince pies, apples and other sweets for the sweetness of their singing.
A ceremony, called Songkran, is celebrated on the traditional New Year’s Day occurring from April 13-15. It involves washing statues of Buddha and the hands of elders to ensure they enter the new year spiritually clean. Songkran takes place during the hottest time of the year in Thailand, and is celebrated by throwing water upon others, usually with containers full of water like buckets and trash cans, water guns and even garden hoses. The water is used to symbolize washing away bad luck, and many Thais also thoroughly clean their homes during this time of year.
Whatever the language, culture, religion, nationality or calendar followed, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are important holidays throughout the world. In each, they represent putting aside the old year — its transgressions, mistakes or bad luck — to bring in a new year of health and happiness. I hope, whatever customs you follow to bring in the New Year, will bring you prosperity, good luck and happiness throughout 2016.