Quick question: What will your wardrobe be on New Year’s Eve? Nice dress? Black tie? How about your, ahem, underwear? If you lived in parts of South America, it wouldn’t even be a question. In São Paulo, La Paz, and other spots, people don brightly colored underpants to ring in the New Year—red if they’re looking for love, and yellow for money.
No matter what we wear, though, New Year signifies a new beginning. Flipping open a fresh calendar, with its 12 pristine, as-yet-unmarked months, is perhaps one of the most universally hopeful acts we humans perform: finally, a chance to shrug off a year’s worth of worries, conflicts, and mistakes; finally, a chance to start over.
It’s no wonder we all welcome the holiday with such enthusiasm. Here in the U.S. (and in lots of other countries), the event is celebrated with fireworks and parades, carousing and toasts. Some cultures, though, have more unusual ways of ushering in the New Year.
In many countries, there’s a shared belief that specific actions taken on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day—or at the stroke of midnight when one becomes the other—can influence the fate of the months ahead. In the Philippines, for example, wearing polka dots and eating round fruits is supposed to ensure a prosperous new year; in Spain, wolfing down handfuls of grapes as the clock strikes 12 is said to have the same effect.
In other countries, New Year’s customs are about driving away the bad spirits of the past year, so that the new one can arrive unsullied and uncorrupted. The purifying power of fire is often used in such ceremonies: during the Scottish festival of Hogmanay, for instance, parades of village men swing giant blazing fireballs over their heads as they march through the streets. In Panama, effigies of popular celebrities and political figures—called muñecos—are burned on bonfires. Other bad-spirit-banishing customs are less fiery and more fun-like the Danish tradition of jumping off chairs at midnight (which gives new meaning to the term “leap year”).
No matter how odd they may seem to us, though, these customs share an optimism that’s hard not to appreciate. Out with the old, in with the new!