I love fresh starts, real and metaphorical. That’s what we get every 365.25-or-so days.
And since scouts are asked to examine how a favorite holiday is celebrated around the world for a couple of badges, I’m exploring some of the traditions and festivities common to other countries and cultures around my very favorite holiday, New Year’s.
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We’re really talking about a two-day celebration here — the last day of one year, the first of the next — and countries, cultures and communities spend these two days in often curious combinations of tradition, revelry, worship, and superstition.
Sure, there are clearly some “core activities” in which most countries engage during the New Year’s celebration. There are lots of parties, shared meals, and, as a species, we like to blow up a lot of fireworks. But beyond the obvious New Year’s revelry, there are some truly unique customs and New Year’s traditions out there.
My list doesn’t include the most popular or well-known. You won’t find the world’s largest public fireworks displays on my Top 20 List of Cool New Year’s Traditions list (hats off to Sydney, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Rio de Janeiro for that), but you will see the kinds of oddities that make us rather unique inhabitants of this big blue marble.
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#20. Russia: Whether celebrating quietly at home in front of the TV or with revelers in Red Square, the last 12 seconds of the old year are reserved for silence, allowing Russians to make their wishes for the new year. Silence is never a bad idea.
#19. England: You can bet that London celebrates with parties and parades, but the town of Bideford is known for its over-the-top commitment by adding to the tradition with finery. Come for the carnival, ring in the new year with Auld Lang Syne and fireworks, but just make sure you’re wearing your finest formal attire. It’s tradition and the world should dress better anyway. At least, I should.
#18. Netherlands: Here’s what really caught my eye: In Rotterdam, public transportation doesn’t run from about 8 p.m. until an hour or so after midnight. These are the only hours of the year during which it doesn’t run. Does this make sense to you guys? Doesn’t it seem like public transportation is a really good idea when large amounts of alcohol are being consumed in public places? Netherlands makes the list for just being contrary to (my) logic.
#17. Belgium: On New Year’s Day, children decorate and give cards to family elders. I’ve also read that farmers specifically ask for blessings for their animals. Good on ’em.
#16. Serbia: Though the country recognizes the Julian calendar for most holidays, January 1st is still celebrated. On that day in Belgrade, a main city road is closed to traffic and opened for a pedestrian festival called the “Street of Open Heart.” That name alone means Serbia makes my list. I love it.
#15. Italy: Leave it to the Italians to affix their rituals to food. You want wealth in the new year? Eat 12 spoonfuls of lentil stew when the clock chimes midnight. Normally, this would not impress me, but have you ever tasted Italian lentil stew? So good…
#14. Germany: Looking for a little luck? Touch a chimney sweep or rub a little ash on your forehead. Want a little more? Eat a little marzipan pig (I am absolutely going to do this — I’m a true sucker for marzipan, and they sell these things at World Market).
#13. Scotland: Celebrate Hogmanay (aka “First Foot”) in Scotland. The first entrant into a home after the New Year’s bell is traditionally a tall, dark-haired man, if you’re lucky, and said traveler should be crossing your threshold with gifts to ward off the winter cold.
Think coal and scotch. You know, the basics.
Still not warm enough? Find a Scotsman swinging a fireball around his head. They’re out there. (And not for nothing, but this guy’d be warmer if he put on pants.)
#12. Austria: Vienna nails it! After the bell at St. Stephen’s rings in the new year, count on hearing Johan Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz beneath fireworks over the city. I want to be there for that, and I want to waltz with my husband in the street. Not likely, but a girl can dream.
#11. Estonia: If you’re celebrating in Estonia, expect to eat seven, nine, or 12 times on New Year’s Eve; these numbers are considered good luck, and the more of these small meals you have, the strong you’ll be in the coming year. Here’s the good news: you don’t have to eat all the food at each meal. But you were going to start that diet on January 1 anyway, right?
#10. Ukraine: New Year’s appears to be a kind of secular Christmas celebration here. Ukraine uses the Julian calendar for religious holidays, often putting Christmas in early January, so New Year’s Eve is the night that (again, secular) St. Nick visits and family gifts are exchanged. Ukraine makes my list because they’ve managed to separate the fun of St. Nick from one of their holiest days.
#9. France: The direction of the wind is a predictor of the coming year’s crop, and let’s just say you do not want the wind to be blowing north. Another requirement for a good new year: make sure you drink all of the wine left in the house from the previous year. Finally, if you enjoy your champagne and foie gras on New Year’s Eve, remember that these were culinary gifts from France. Just sayin’…
#8 Spain: If we want to look at the source of several Central and South American New Year’s traditions, we can turn our eyes to the Mother Country, Spain.
Good luck in the coming year requires only two things. First, wear new underwear, and not just any underwear, my friends. You want red underwear for some really good luck… in a certain area, if you get my drift.
Second, eat 12 grapes at midnight, one for each toll of the bell, to guarantee your happiness. Yum, on both counts.
#7 Venezuela: Building on that fabulous Spanish tradition of red underwear for some sexy luck, Venezuelans go one step more. If you’re already satisfied in the bedroom, don some yellow bottoms to bring a year of overall happiness. And if you want to see the green (money) come into our life, skip the skivvies and make a toast — while holding a bill of large denomination in your hand.
#6 Costa Rica: As with Spain and so many Central and South American countries, you want to eat those 12 grapes, but grapes aren’t the only reason Costa Rica makes this list. If Costa Ricans are aching to travel in the coming year, you just might find them running through the streets with luggage in tow at midnight. Now, I have been told by everyone I know who has ever been to Costa Rica that it is nothing short of The Ultimate Paradise, so I’m not certain why these people would ever want to leave. But I shall ask about this when I visit Costa Rica, someday. For real.
#5. Philippines: Filipinos ring in the New Year with sound, color, and circles. In other words, start by wearing your most vividly colored polka-dotted dress. All things circular — including coins and round fruits, for instance — attract money. Shake those coins in a metal dish while walking around the house and attract even more wealth. Smack some pots and pans to ward off bad juju. And (this is my favorite), you can apparently increase your physical height on New Year’s by jumping up as high as you can. [NOTE: This last one has my standard “found it only on Wikipedia disclaimer” — but it’s too delightful not to mention here.]
#4. Greece: My paternal relatives will all tell you: if you want to scare away those evil spirits, start the New Year by stepping outside at the stroke of midnight and clanking your pots and pans loudly. Feel free to spit them away, too. Enjoy a slice of Vasilopita — which I’d describe as an interesting cross between bread and cake — and cross your fingers that you get the slice with the coin baked into it; the year’s luck will be yours.
Finally, get ready to welcome (and pay money to) your first guest of the year — your luck will depend on who it is. (Personal note: Growing up in my household, we smacked the pots and pans, and we may have spit. I’ve enjoyed Vasilopita and even snagged the coin, but I’m pretty sure we didn’t actually pay money to guests on January 1st.)
#3. Denmark: Letting nothing go to waste, the Danes apparently hoard their broken dishes throughout the year, then toss them at the doors of their friends’ homes on New Year’s Eve. The bigger the pile of broken china, the more popular you are. Wow. That’s wild. That’s almost crazy-like-a-Greek. But there’s something to be said for reusing broken dishes this way. Feels curiously good for the planet.
#2. Ecuador/Panama: Remind me to stay away from Ecuador and Panama on New Year’s Eve. These guys burn stuffed dummies in effigy — thousands of them, in the streets. Life-sized dummies are made to represent the appearance of enemies, personal or political. And throwing them on a midnight bonfire is believed to cleanse the negative energies of the past year and purify the new. Yikes.
#1. Japan: Clearly, the new year is this country’s favorite holiday. Customs abound, too many to mention here. Homes are cleaned with diligence and often decorated with bamboo, seaweed, ferns, and pines to bring long life, good health, happiness and fortune. On the last day of the year, listen for the Buddhist temple bells to ring 108 times; each chime eliminates one trouble, sin, worry, or weight on the soul.
But my favorite of Japan’s traditions, and the reason Japan makes it to the top of my list, is the New Year’s custom to forgive and forget. By forgiving those who have wronged us, and by knowing we are forgiven, we may start the new year with true peace. That’s my idea of a good new year, and a real fresh start.
To read more about the practices surrounding this celebration (they begin in mid-December), click here.
Think I’ve missed a country that should be on the list? Do you know of any New Year traditions or customs from any countries on this list that I missed? Please let me know!
I hope you’re planning a great celebration of your own for this coming weekend. And to send you off, here’s a Life slide show of New Year’s celebrations around the world.