All around the world, people will be celebrating (or lamenting) the New Year on December 31st. While music, friends, family and fun seem universal on this night, some countries have unique customs and traditions.
In Scotland, New Years Eve is known as Hogmanay, and there’s a rich heritage associated with its celebration. Its roots date back to Viking, or Norman, or Flemish traditions (depending on who you speak to) but all call for an epic night of partying. Friends and strangers are made welcome, while ladies freely dish out New Years kisses, much to the delight of the gents. A custom called “first footing” is still common throughout the country. After midnight, a male should step first into the house for good luck. Since he’s typically bearing a bottle of fine Scotch, it’s good luck indeed.
Thais love to party, and they love to party on New Years Eve. Perhaps that’s why they enjoy three annual New Years Eve celebrations. Fireworks and celebrations abound for our Western New Year as well as the Chinese New year. But things really go crazy for Songkran, the Thai New Year. It is tradition to throw or spray water, drenching anyone you see, friend or stranger. The water is seen as a symbol of cleaning away the pain and sorrow of the year past. Sometimes the water is mixed with good luck herbs or talc, caking everyone in milky goo. Songkran is a time to pay respect to elders and family, and also cleaning the household for the year to come. Buddha statues are also gathered, paraded, and sprayed with water for good luck too.
While the Hebrew calendar differs greatly from the Western Calendar, most Israelis are happy to have one more excuse to party. New Years Day in Israel is known as Sylvester, after a Pope who ruled around 325 AD. Canonized by the Church as a Saint to be honoured on December 31st, Sylvester was behind various anti-Semitic legislation and restrictions. In fact, during medieval times, January 1st was typically accompanied by attacks on synagogues, Jews, and book burnings. On January 1st 1577, Pope Gregory required all Roman Jews to convert to Catholicism under pain of death. With this in mind, many Israelis and Jews celebrate New Years Eve as a poignant reminder of their survival through the ages. The Jewish New Year typically takes place in September or October.
Should you be in Singapore for December 31st, head to Marina Bay for huge celebrations (last year there were over 250,000 people), or walk amongst the crowds on the Esplanade or at Merlion Park. Fireworks and parades abound. If you happen to stick around until the beginning of February, you can enjoy the two-week festival of Chin Jie, or Chinese New Year. This is a time of colourful markets, lavish family dinners, dragon dances, fireworks, and of course, shopping for gifts. Singapore’s Chinatown holds large parades and street parties, but since Singapore has such a large Chinese population, celebrations are held just about everywhere. Various ornaments and flowers are use to denote different types of luck, which is why you’ll see pictures of koi fish (for success) and find plum blossoms (for luck) and chrysanthemums (for longevity) on sale at local markets. Dance, musical shows and floats take place throughout the period.
Icelanders call News Year Eve “Gamlarskrold”, marked by parties, feasts, and large bonfires – a tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages. It is custom to welcome strangers into homes and celebrations, which makes it especially fun to be a tourist at this time of year. Fireworks are everywhere, and particularly encouraged. Large groups gather in communal feasts to celebrate with steaming drinks and song. Reykjavik, the capital city, hums with celebrations throughout the night, holding one of the biggest fireworks displays anywhere on the planet. If you’re hoping to party until sunrise, you’re in for a long night. This far north, the sun only comes up around mid-day, but during the darkness you might be lucky enough to welcome in the New Year under the Northern Lights.
Ethiopia operates according to a different calendar, and a different clock. Unlike our Gregorian (or Western Calendar), they use the Orthodox Julian Calendar. Days are divided into two 12-hour blocks that begin at 6am Western time. Entutatash, the Ethiopian New Year, takes place annually on our September 11th. The Julian calendar is also several years ahead of ours, which is why the Millennium was celebrated in Ethiopia in 2007. A tradition on Entutatash calls for bundles of dry leaves, sticks and wood to be collected as torches, and given to family and friends. This served the same purpose as greeting cards, which younger people prefer to use these days. Families enjoy meals of traditional stew served with injera (bread), tejj (honey wine) and tella (beer). Bunna (coffee) is served in a wonderful ceremony that slow roasts the beans, served in small cups to friends and family.
Watching the time ball drop in Times Square is perhaps the most well-known image Americans associate with New Years Eve. The ritual has been copied in other famous New Years destinations, like Rio’s Copacabana, and Sydney Harbour in Australia. Yet some American towns have taken the ball drop and modified it with local peculiarities. In Orlando, they drop an orange. In Elmore, Ohio, they drop a sausage. In Memphis they drop a guitar, in New Orleans a pot of Gumbo. In Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, why a pickle of course!
Like other parts of Latin America, Ecuador celebrates the New Year by the burning of effigies. Each effigy, made with paper or straw, is decorated to represent a person, an event, or anything from the previous year that needs a fiery send-off. Come midnight, the matches are lit and the effigies burn, symbolically releasing emotions and anger. The tradition dates back to pagan times, having being brought to the New World by Spanish colonists. Julius Caesar noted around 40 BC that burning effigies were used by Gaul Druids to accompany human sacrifices. Apparently, the gods liked thieves and murderers placed in the middle. In Ecuador, an effigy might resemble an unpopular politician, but he’ll still be around to cause trouble in the New Year. Ecuadoreans might also wear yellow underwear to help attract good luck, along with eating 12 grapes (one wish per grape). One more tradition I’m particularly fond of: If you walk with a suitcase around the block, the New Year might bring you to a dream journey.