World's Strangest New Year Traditions
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!
At midnight on New Year’s Eve, it’s customary in Spain to quickly eat 12 grapes (or uvas)—one at each stroke of the clock. Each grape supposedly signifies good luck for one month of the coming year. In Madrid, Barcelona, and other Spanish cities, revelers congregate in the main squares to gobble their grapes together and pass around bottles of cava.
Hoping for a travel-filled year, residents tote empty suitcases around the block. —Melanie Lieberman
The faithful wear a costume of the next year’s zodiac animal (in 2014: a horse) to the local temple, where bells chime a sacred 108 times. —Melanie Lieberman
Danes ring in the New Year by hurling old plates and glasses...against the doors of friends' and relatives' houses. They also stand on chairs and then jump off them together at midnight. Leaping into January is supposed to banish bad spirits and bring good luck.
In downtown Jo-burg, locals throw old appliances out the window. Heads up! —Melanie Lieberman
It’s a longtime Finnish tradition to predict the coming year by casting molten tin into a container of water, and then interpreting the shape the metal takes after hardening. A heart or ring shape means a wedding in the New Year; a ship forecasts travel; and a pig shape signifies plenty of food.
Effigies of well-known people—called muñecos—are traditionally burned in New Year’s bonfires in Panama. The figures can include everyone from television characters like “Ugly Betty” to political figures like Fidel Castro (in 2007, Panama’s first Olympic gold medalist, track star Irving Saladin, was burned as a muñeco). The effigies represent the old year; immolating them is meant to drive off evil spirits for a fresh New Year’s start.
During the New Year’s Eve celebration of Hogmanay, “first-footing” is practiced all over Scotland. The custom dictates that the first person to cross the threshold of a home in the New Year should carry a gift for luck (whiskey is the most common). The Scots also hold bonfire ceremonies, most notably in the small fishing village of Stonehaven, where townsmen parade while swinging giant fireballs on poles overhead (supposedly symbols of the sun, to purify the coming year).
Round shapes (representing coins) are thought to symbolize prosperity for the coming year in the Philippines; many Filipino families display heaps of round fruits on the dining table for New Year’s Eve. Other families are more particular; they eat exactly 12 fruits at midnight (grapes, which are also eaten at midnight in Spain, are easiest). Still others wear New Year polka dots for luck.
During the traditional celebration of Kaliady, still-unmarried women play games to predict who will be wed in the New Year. In one game, a pile of corn is placed before each woman, and a rooster is let go; whichever pile the rooster approaches first reveals who will be the first to marry. In another game, a married woman hides certain items around her house for her unmarried friends to find; the woman who finds bread will supposedly marry a rich husband; the one who finds a ring will marry a handsome one.
In (leaner) decades past, Estonians followed a custom of trying to eat seven times on New Year’s Day, to ensure abundant food in the coming year. (If a man ate seven times, he was supposed to have the strength of seven men the following year). Modern-day celebrations here, however—especially in the party-hearty capital of Tallinn—tend to revolve as much around alcohol as food.
Central and South America
In Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela, it’s considered lucky to wear special underwear on New Year’s Eve; in cities like São Paulo and La Paz, market vendors start displaying brightly colored underpants a few days before the holiday. The most popular colors are red and yellow: red is supposed to bring love in the coming year, and yellow is supposed to bring money.