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Different cultures mark the official start of each New Year on different dates, and count the years according to different calendars. (It’s 5781 according to the Hebrew calendar, and the Chinese are partying like it’s 4718.) And while customs vary even more than dates, almost all have common elements. Everyone (with the possible exception of dogs) loves fire, or fireworks — or both. Good luck? Yes, please, and lots of it. As the world prepares to say a much-anticipated adios to 2020, here are 15 of our favorite New Year’s customs and celebrations from other countries.
In addition to enormous torchlit processions, Scots get the New Year off on the right foot with the tradition of first-footing. Traditionally the luckiest “first foot” to cross the door after the stroke of midnight should be a dark-haired male (perhaps in response to those blond Viking invaders). Today, friends or family who cross the door can bring luck. If the Hogmanay hangover the next day is crushing, join a thousand or more costumed Edinburghians for Loony Dook, where the hearty partiers throw themselves into the frigid waters of the Firth (estuary) of the River Forth.
Burning of the Strawmen, Uruguay
Getting fresh apparel is a popular way to celebrate many holidays in many cultures, but South Americans make it even more festive by putting old clothes on straw figures — and then setting them alight. To add an extra layer of amusement, the faces of unpopular people (politicians are a favorite choice) are painted on the figures before they’re burned. It makes for a festive blaze — unless, of course, you’re one of the unfortunate effigies.
St. Sylvester Feast, Austria
December 31 is the feast day of St. Sylvester, and the Austrians celebrate the 33rd Pope (who ruled in the early 4th century A.D.) by feasting on pork. Specifically, they prepare Sylvesterabend, or roast suckling pig. Cute marzipan (almond paste) pigs decorate tables, and a toast of mulled wine is raised in honor of the saint. Across the cities in Austria, all church bells ring at midnight. In Vienna, a glittering ball is held at the Imperial Palace, and outdoor concerts and dances bring in the New Year.
The Levee, Canada
French King Louis XIV used to receive his male subjects upon rising in a ceremonial custom called a levare, and the tradition carried over to his Canadian subjects in military outposts. Today the levee (rhymes with “eh”) is an exclusively Canadian New Year’s tradition, and residents go to receptions to mingle with elected officials and enjoy refreshments and entertainment. A traditional cocktail for warming up the wintry gathering is “Moose Milk,” a potent punch which includes cream, eggs, and liquor.
The Persian New Year, or Nowruz, arrives on the vernal equinox, the first day of Spring. In Iran and all around the world, Persian families and friends gather to celebrate at elaborately laden haft-sin tables, where seven symbolic objects beginning with the letter “s” (sin) are arranged, including colored eggs, red fruit, hyacinths, and fresh sprouts. Goldfish and a book of poetry are also often included. The festival lasts twelve days. On the thirteenth day, families gather for an outdoor picnic to discard the sabzeh (sprouts) and welcome another year.
Twelve Grapes at Midnight, Spain
When the clocks chime at midnight on December 31, Spaniards are less concerned with kissing and more with consuming grapes. According to custom, eating one grape at each strike of the clock will bring prosperity and love in the New Year — one grape for each month. Dropping a gold ring in your glass of bubbles is another custom said to ensure good luck — but don’t swallow it!
Seven Meals, Estonia
Pack your comfy pants for New Year’s Eve in Estonia, a time for “lucky meals” — typically seven or more in a single day. Tradition says that each meal one eats that day gives the strength of seven, or nine, or even twelve men for the coming year. These numbers are considered especially auspicious (as long as you aren’t counting calories). Popular items include wild boar and marzipan. Since you should also leave something on the plate for spirits and ancestors, perhaps you won’t walk away from the table too full.
Paint the elephants and prime the water guns: Thailand’s New Year’s festival is nothing if not colorful and wet. Celebrated on April 13 (and the days surrounding it), the Thai holiday has strong religious origins and began with purifying Buddha statues with water. While the sacred symbolism remains, with many Thais visiting wats (temples) and merit-making, it’s also a tourist-friendly free-for-all of splashing, celebrating, and partying in the streets. (Pro tip: Arrive with a laid-back attitude ... and a towel.)
Rosh Hashanah, Israel
Apples, honey, and ram’s horns (shofars): the Jewish New Year is a two-day high holiday that occurs in autumn and is a time of spiritual reflection as well as celebration for Jews around the world. Symbolic foods are eaten to bring forth a sweet New Year. The shofar is blown one hundred times among prayers, as a wake-up call to remember (and repent of) sins of the past year. In Israel, it’s school vacation, and also a huge time for Broadway-style musical and theater extravaganzas. One of the most popular is Festigal, a song and dance show that has included such stars as Wonder Woman's Gal Godot.
Japan has a wealth of traditions welcoming the New Year, a celebration known as Ōmisoka, but toshikoshi-soba (buckwheat noodles) are by far the tastiest. “Year-crossing noodles” are long, symbolizing longevity, but also easily cut, symbolizing cutting ties and letting go of the past year. Other observances include temple bells chiming 108 times. Known as joya no kane, the bells represent the spiritual cleansing of the 108 worldly passions in Buddhist tradition.
New Underwear, Brazil
Bear (bare?) with us — new underwear is a New Year’s thing in Brazil and many parts of Latin America. Guided by the spirit of “ano novo, vida nova” (“new year, new life”), wearing new underwear is rooted in both tradition and superstition. Drop your ... hints ... before December 31, because underwear that’s a gift is said to be the best luck of all. There’s a color code, as well. Wear white clothing and choose your base layer depending on your wish for the New Year: red for passion, green for health, yellow for money, and multi-colored if you’d like a little bit of everything.
Hoppin’ John, Southern United States
Legumes (sometimes with pork) are considered good luck for New Year’s in many cultures, including Italy. In the United States, it’s primarily a Southern tradition. Hoppin’ John combines black-eyed peas, rice, and ham hocks for a delicious and protein-rich one-dish feast. On January 1, it’s often served with collard greens (the color of money) and golden, crispy cornbread. Please pass the butter.
Lunar New Year, China
In the Chinese zodiac, 2020 was the Year of the Rat, but we’re optimistic about 2021: the Year of the Ox. The Lunar New Year will arrive on February 12, with much rejoicing. There will be plenty of fireworks (a Chinese invention) along with dragon dances and lots of housekeeping to clear out the old spirits and make everything tidy and fresh for the future. The lucky color red is everywhere — and if you’re indeed lucky, an older relative or boss will slip you a nice red envelope filled with cash.
Muharram, Saudi Arabia
The first day of Muharram (the first month of the Muslim calendar) marks the beginning of the Islamic New Year. The day is suffused with Islamic tradition, and is observed differently in different regions and according to different sects — often with fasting, prayers, poems, and processions. In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, people drink a glass of milk in the morning (so the year is pure and white), have a green vegetable for lunch (so the year is green and blessed), and enjoy a pot of almond tea (often sweetened with honey) in the afternoon for a sweet start to the coming year.
Breaking Plates, Denmark
If you wake up in Copenhagen to a pile of smashed pottery on your doorstep New Year’s Day, congratulations are in order. The Danes consider smashing crockery to be good luck, and go out throwing plates to bring New Year’s blessings on their friends and family. Just grab a broom and watch your step. No one is precisely sure how this tradition originated, but one guess is it involved akvavit (a very strong liquor) … and lots of it.