New Year Traditions around the World

Living in Bali among locals and expats, our New Year traditions are becoming like a coat of many colours. A lot of expats bring traditional customs from their native country and, coupled with that of your other expat and Balinese friends, it becomes an ear-exploding riot of experience and colour. The Balinese themselves have incorporated a few expat practices in their own celebrations. Unfortunately it seems they are much taken to exploding fireworks with an enthusiasm that is seldom seen anywhere else. Even though the government is wisely putting some boundaries on the use of fireworks, these regulations are blithely ignored in the week leading up to New Year’s Eve and –sigh- for a few days afterwards.

Welcoming the New Year in style is an age-old ritual incorporating many pagan and religious beliefs and around the world it is celebrated in various ways. In the western hemisphere the festivities contain 5 traditional elements: fireworks, popping a bottle of champagne, singing Auld Lang Syne, kissing your friends and family to wish them happiness and prosperity in the coming year and last, those ubiquitous New Year resolutions.

Other countries mark the occasion with some peculiar celebratory habits which have some interesting parallels in other cultures, including Balinese. For instance, in Ecuador they celebrate the New Year by burning paper-filled scarecrows at midnight in the name of good fortune. Panamanians have a similar practice. They create effigies of famous personalities, hated politicians and anyone not in their favour and set them on fire. Typically the dolls are stuffed with firecrackers in order to really express an opinion and get the festivities cranking.

In Japan, Joya no Kane is a Buddhist ritual that involves ringing a bell exactly 108 times at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Buddhists believe that humans are entrapped by 108 different desires that keep us suffering. By ringing the bell for each of these undesirable passions the accumulation of bad karma or spirits from the previous year is chased away and the individual is purified. All ready to start with a clean slate for the next batch of temptations!

Spain’s New Year’s tradition for good luck revolves around grapes. People eat 12 grapes – one at each stroke of the clock at midnight. Each grape represents good luck for one month of the coming year. In bigger cities like Madrid and Barcelona, people gather in the main squares to eat their grapes together and pass around bottles of cava.

The people in the Philippines also eat grapes and any round shaped fruit because, according to local belief, round shapes bring prosperity. On New Year’s Eve they like to dress up in anything sporting polka dots and fill their pockets with coins, in the hope that the coming year will be prosperous.

Latin Americans like to don new underwear of many colours to symbolise coveted benefits in the new year.   In Brazil, as well as other countries like Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela, the lucky underwear colours are red, thought to bring love in the New Year, yellow to bring money, and green to bring luck. The Turks believe the same thing: wearing red underwear at midnight on New Year’s Eve is crucial to bring good luck in the coming year.

In Denmark they don’t go in for coloured underwear but they save all of their unused or broken dishes and plates until the 31st of December when they affectionately shatter them against the doors of all their friends and family, ostensibly to ward off bad spirits. A big heap of broken crockery at your front door indicates you have many well-wishers. Another convention is to climb on top of chairs and literally “jump” into the New Year to bring good luck.

In Bolivia coins are baked into sweets and whoever finds the coins has good luck for the next year. This is similar to the famous French tradition of serving a Galette des Rois (Kings Cake) – cake with a baked-in coin or small trinket – on the day of Epiphany which marks the end of the holiday season on 6 January. The person who gets the piece of cake with the trinket becomes king or queen for the day and enjoys various privileges.

In some parts of South Africa they throw old furniture out the window, a custom which sounds familiar with the practice in Singapore where, at the time of Chinese new year, all old furniture is put out on the curb in order to bring in something new and invite good luck into the home.

Many countries welcome in the new year with an invigorating swim in a nearby river, lake or sea – as cure for hangovers, perhaps? From Scotland to Siberia, in the Americas and Australia, these polar bear plunges attract young and old and are kept lively and entertaining by the wearing of some fancy or strange apparel, like santa hats, fin-de-siècle bathing costumes or disguises from your favourite cartoon characters. Some countries like France do it with undisguised flair, fancy dress and chilled champagne.

In many countries NYE celebrations are a public affair. The ball dropping in New York’s Time Square is televised around the world. Other instagramable celebrations are Hogmanay in Scotland where young men go around the town swinging fireballs and the Sydney Harbour Light Parade at midnight. Amsterdam hosts one of the world’s largest street parties on New Year’s Eve with music, firework, beer tents and oliebollen, a deep-fried confection of dough that is a staple in the Netherlands. Tradition holds that eating these deep fried dough balls will ward off evil spirits in the New Year.

The New Year merriment goes on for a long time as there are 39 time zones in the world. Based on the International Date Line, the islands of Samoa and Kiribati are the first places on Earth to start the party. The last place to celebrate is Baker Island and Howland Island, two uninhabited wildlife refuges located about halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Lucky inhabitants as they probably don’t go in for fireworks to raise the dead.


By Ines Wynn

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