Around the World with New Year Traditions
I hope you had as merry a Christmas as was possible for you and your family. In this final week of 2020, most of us are certainly hoping, praying, fingers crossed for a 2021 that brings all the good things we missed this year, and I imagine that the moment of midnight will be met by “goodbye 2020” celebrations that out-do typical ball-dropping, black-eyed peas and Auld Lang Syne, even if only in our hearts and minds, since public revelry is unlikely for many of us.
Most cultures have New Year traditions very dissimilar to those in the US, but most have absorbed the practice of fireworks displays that are either done privately by the citizenry or done publicly to reduce the incidence of fire. Have you ever spent the New Year in a foreign country that has deep traditional practices? I have not. I spent Christmas in Mexico, but will be home for New Year. Here is the Mexican New Year tradition, and twelve others for you to enjoy remotely, as has become our habit
Mexicans celebrate New Year's Eve by eating a grape with each of the twelve chimes of a clock's bell during the midnight countdown, while making a wish with each one. Mexican families decorate homes and parties in colors that represent wishes for the upcoming year: red encourages an overall improvement of lifestyle and love, yellow encourages blessings of improved employment conditions, green for improved financial circumstances, and white for improved health. Mexican sweet bread is baked with a coin or charm hidden in the dough. When the bread is served, the recipient of the slice with the coin or charm is said to be blessed with good luck in the New Year. Another tradition is to make a list of all the bad or unhappy events over the past 12 months; before midnight, this list is thrown into a fire, symbolizing the removal of negative energy from the new year. At the same time, they are expressed for all the good things during the year that is ending so that they will continue in the new year.
The Danes’ tradition involves smashing plates against doors as the new year begins to banish bad spirits for another year. They are going to need a lot of plates.
In Panama, effigies called muñecas are burned during New Year’s Eve celebrations; the burning figures represent the year past and are meant to prevent evil spirits from appearing in the new year. They must not have burned enough muñecas last year.
In Greece, onions are a symbol of rebirth, so they are hung on the door for the birth of a new year. Children are awakened on New Year’s Day by their parents tapping their head with the onion! Greek Orthodox families cut the vasilopita (St. Basil’s pie) at midnight. Whoever finds the coin that has been baked inside will have prosperity in the new year.
Columbians carry empty suitcases around the block, with the hope that the new year will be filled with travel. Now that's my kind of tradition – I might be doing this one as I greet 2021.
'Hogmanay' is the name of the New Year celebration in Scotland. The word really refers to New Year’s Eve, but the celebration carries to the new year, and places much significance on the first guest to a home in that new year, who must bring a gift for luck. The celebration actually begins December 30, with giant bonfires, street parties and parades with lighted torches to symbolize the sun and as a purification for the coming year. Then you hurl yourself into the icy River Forth on the 1st. Those Scots know how to party!
In Spain it’s customary to eat 12 grapes, one at each stroke of the midnight bell. It’s believed that each grape represents a month of luck in the new year. People gather in city plazas to eat grapes and drink Cava, a sparkling wine.
Filipinos believe that round things symbolize coins and will bring wealth during the new year. Many wear polka dots on New Year’s Eve and display round fruits. As a former colony of Spain, in the Philippines twelve grapes are eaten at midnight for good luck.
The Finnish folks throw molten lead which has been melted on the stove into containers of water, and then interpret the shape of the metal or the shadow it casts to predict the future year. Hearts or circles (ring shape) predict a marriage, a pig shape predicts plentiful food, while a ship shape represents travel.
Brazilians wear New Year’s underwear; red is thought to ensure love in the new year while yellow is believed to bring wealth. In Rio de Janeiro, you can party on Copacabana beach wearing a white outfit and rush headlong into the ocean after midnight. The tradition is to jump seven small waves and make a wish or give thanks with each one.
Soba noodles are eaten just before midnight in Japan. The Toshikoshi noodle is a long buckwheat noodle; a rough translation of the noodle’s name is “year crossing noodle” and eating it before midnight symbolizes crossing from one year to the next. Chewing the soft noodles is thought to signify a letting go any regrets from the old year and starting the new year fresh. Bring on the noodles! If you prefer, visit a temple where the priest will ring a bell 108 times at midnight to cleanse you of your 108 worldy desires.
Italians believe that lentils symbolize luck and prosperity. They are frequently prepared with rich cuts of pork (traditionally, trotters or entrails) which represent the bounty of the land. And remember to wear your red underwear.
Here is to a vastly improved 2021 for all of us. More peace of mind, more travel, more of whatever YOU are wishing for; less disappointment, less uncertainty, and fewer broken plans.
By the way, my colleague Joan McGee Qualls helped curate this content with the help of Fodors - 18 Best Places to Celebrate New Year's Eve (thanks Joan!): https://www.fodors.com/news/photos/20-best-places-to-celebrate-new-years; and Wikipedia, of course, provided invaluable input.
A happier 2021 to us all!
'til next week
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