It’s getting closer to that time of year again – while it might seem only yesterday that we were just putting our Christmas decorations up, before too long they’ll be coming back down again and we’ll be preparing for a brand New Year.
Despite the cynicism about the occasion from some quarters, the changing of the date’s significant digit is one which is celebrated wildly in almost every corner of the globe. Across the world, the occasion will be marked with drinking, merriment, and a whole host of different traditions. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of them.
We live in such an interconnected world, and so it might not be surprising that some traditions have managed to spread their way across the globe. It’s worth therefore beginning our roundup with some of the more widespread traditions, before moving onto those that are more localised.
Loud explosions and blossoms of multi-coloured light against the night sky are synonymous with New Year. It’s difficult to imagine ushering in the New Year without them – though we suspect that those final tolls on Big Ben would be rather anticlimactic.
Fireworks are widely-thought to have originated in China – and it was the Chinese who first thought to use them to mark the New Year. It was believed at the time that such things would scare away malevolent spirits, and thereby ensure that the coming year was a fortuitous one. Nowadays, we regard New Year’s fireworks with rather less superstition – most simply think that loud bangs and flashing lights are jolly impressive – and, naturally, we agree.
A New Year has long been an occasion where we attempt to rid ourselves of our bad habits and form new, good ones. We might pledge to stop smoking, join a gym, swear less, or give more to charity – though whether we actually carry these pledges through is another matter entirely.
These well-intentioned pledges are called New Year’s Resolutions, and we probably have the Babylonians to thank for them. They made pledges to their gods that they would behave themselves. The Romans would later continue the tradition, targeting their promises toward Janus, the god of transition, after whom January is named. The tradition has since passed seamlessly into Christian tradition, and from there into secular tradition. Perhaps you’ll be making some New Year’s resolutions before the year is out!
In many parts of the world, participants in New Year festivities wear red underwear beneath their finery. These include both Italy and Turkey. This tradition is said to bestow good luck to all who partake in it. Consequently, market stalls selling red lingerie crop up across the areas where the tradition has taken hold – and business is great! This is one tradition which you can observe without anyone knowing about it.
Auld Lang Syne
This particular sing-song session originates in Scotland, where it’s synonymous with the occasion. Auld Lang Syne, as any Scottish schoolchild knows, comes from the brain of the nation’s most famous poet, Robert Burns. Burns first published the poem in 1796 – but it wasn’t until a few years later that Burns himself transcribed it to music, having heard an old man sing it. The version we sing today is actually an old folk tune that predates Burn’s poem by a considerable stretch. That said, it’s difficult to be sure whether the version we sing today is the one that Burns originally intended.
What many Scottish schoolchildren don’t know is that many of the lyrics widely credited to Burns were penned some eighty years beforehand, by another poet named James Watson, in a poem called ‘Old Long Syne’. We can hardly blame Burns for this, however; when he first submitted the work, he attached a note saying “I took it down from an old man”.
Whatever the precise origins of the song, it soon became closely associated with the Hogmanay festivities, being sung almost immediately after the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve. The tradition has since spread from Burn’s homeland to the rest of the British Isles – and then to the world. It’s among the earliest, and most successful, of Scotland’s cultural exports.
Scots refer to New Year’s Eve as Hogmanay. It’s an occasion marked by much celebration (as indeed it is elsewhere in the world). But the Scots do have one or two unique traditions and quirks that set them apart from other parts of the world.
For a long time, it was Hogmanay and not Christmas that was the significant winter festival in Scotland. Scots still mark the occasion by presenting one another with gifts, and by going round to one another’s houses. The first of these guests is customarily given special priority attention as the first guest of the year – traditionally this ‘first footer’ would receive a symbolic gift, such as salt, coal or bread, and the householder would receive good luck in return.
This is one tradition which extends back so far that it’s difficult to say exactly when and where it began. It’s not even clear where the term ‘Hogmanay’ came from – scholars have debated for years (nay, centuries) about whether it was derived from French, Norse or Celtic, and no-one has emerged victorious. We can speculate that the festival was the result of the invading Norsemen, who adapted some of the traditions of the Celts to form a new festival. What we do know is that the Hogmanay celebrations are in ruder health than ever – and that this year they promise to usher in the New Year with a bang!
The United States
The United States, being a country of immigrants, has no truly ancient traditions of its own – everything older than a few centuries has been imported there by those travelling there in search of a better life.
That said, old Uncle Sam does has developed a few traditions of its own. Perhaps the most famous of these is the dropping of the New Year Ball, which takes place in New York City’s famous Times Square. An assembled crowd will below out a countdown as the giant illuminated ball descends a forty-three-metre flagpole, and then the lights go out and the New Year is flashed up in enormous sparkly letters. It’s a tradition that quite neatly summarises that all-American commitment to enormousness and spectacle.
This is a tradition which dates back to 1907, when the owner of the New York Times decided to cap off the fireworks display being held at the newspaper’s new headquarters with an impressive visual centrepiece. The ball was enormously popular and successful – and has been everpresent in New Year celebrations in New York since then. This first ball was made from iron and wood – though nowadays it’s made from crystal.
Mexicans, like their Spanish cousins, usher in the New Year by eating twelve grapes – each representing a chime of the midnight clock. They get to make a wish on each of them, and decorate their homes in colours to match their wishes – red might signify love, white might signify good health, and green might signify better financial circumstances.
Mexicans get together with their families and eat a final meal before heading out for a New Year party. A traditional food enjoyed at such a meal is a sweet bread, with a coin baked into it. Tradition holds that this coin will grant the recipient good luck for the coming year.
The Portuguese, like their neighbours, enjoy twelve fruits after the midnight chimes have finished – but they eat raisins, rather than grapes. This illustrates just how tradition can spread from one area to another, evolving along the way.
On the other side of the world, the New Year is ushered in in an entirely different manner. Oshoga is the Japanese term for the occasion – though, curiously, Japan has only begun celebrating it concurrently with the West for a century-and-a-half.
Up until the Meiji restoration, which consolidated the country’s political system beneath the will of its ruling emperor, Japan celebrated their New Year according to the Chinese Lunar Calendar. But just five years after imperial rule was cemented, the country switched to the Gregorian system, under which it’s remained ever since.
The Japanese partake in a number of different customs to mark the New Year. They dine well on an assortment of sweet, sour and dried foodstuffs. This tradition stems from a time before refrigeration was widespread – since shops would be closed on New Year’s Day, people had to subsist on the sorts of foods that would keep.
Japan also has its share of religious traditions. When the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, Buddhist temples throughout the country will ring bells 108 times. This is symbolic of the 108 sins which Buddhist teaching states that human beings are cursed with. Japanese Buddhists believe that this ceremony will help to cleanse them of any misdemeanours accrued over the past year, and leave their souls clean to face the new one.