new year's eve traditions around the world

New Year’s traditions around the world reveal our need for hope and fresh starts

More than merely superstition and naive symbolism about luck and abundance, new-year rituals from different cultures are about finding meaning in life, re-establishing control and re-emerging triumphant.

I no longer feel all that obligated to celebrate and commemorate the arbitrary designation of the year’s end according to the Gregorian calendar. In fact, as I get older, I find myself much more interested in natural transitions like the changing of the seasons, the solstice, rejoicing when the days get longer, staring in celebration at the monthly sight of the glorious full moon. 

But I still love New Year’s, if for no other reason than it symbolizes hope, new beginnings, new opportunities to do things better. I think it’s why most people like the symbolism of the holiday. The way we pretend to press down on an imaginary stopwatch, start the time over, wipe out the old and start fresh with a new chance at getting it right is like the way a child shakes an Etch A Sketch to quickly erase an imperfect image. A new blank screen awaits. You get to aim for perfection once again. 

All New Year’s traditions around the world, no matter the culture, symbolize an attempt to redeem ourselves and try again. In Ireland, tradition instructs revellers to simply open the back door of their house just before midnight to “let the old year out” and open the front door to “let the New Year in.” I like the simplicity of the symbolism — and the minimal requirements asked of me. 

We eat what we hope for

new year's traditions around the world
Spain & the Philippines: Round fruit (New Year’s traditions around the world)

Many traditions are usually in place to bring good luck for the coming year. Food and fruit often make an appearance, often items that are round, signifying everything coming full circle. In Spain and in the Philippines, it’s customary to eat 12 round fruit, like grapes, one at each stroke of midnight for every month, to ensure a year of abundance.

In many Asian cultures, you eat a whole steamed fish to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Some say the reason is that fish only prefer to swim in one direction: forward. But the most popular explanation for why it’s served is because the word for fish in Mandarin sounds a lot like the Mandarin word for surplus and abundance. 

Many Asian cultures also celebrate New Year’s by eating long food, like noodles, which represent longevity. As a sidenote, I’ve always found the list of things you can’t do during the first day of the Lunar New Year fascinating. You can’t wash your hair or your clothes in case it washes away your good luck. No sweeping in case it sweeps away your good fortune. Of course, all the cleaning has been done well in advance, washing away the bad luck of the past year. 

That lucky coin…

Greece: Vasilopita (New Year’s traditions around the world)
Greece: Vasilopita (New Year’s traditions around the world)

In Greek culture, we bake a vasilopita for New Year’s. It’s a cake or sweet bread that has a small foil-wrapped coin placed inside the dough before it’s baked. The sweetness symbolizes the hope the new year will be sweet and good to us. (It’s for this exact same reason that apples dipped in honey are eaten during Jewish New Year.) Greek tradition dictates that whoever finds the coin will enjoy good luck for the new year. Usually, the vasilopita is cut by the senior member of the family. According to Greek Orthodox religious tradition, the vasilopita is distributed as follows: The first slice goes to Jesus, the second piece goes to the Virgin Mary, a third is subsequently cut for the house, and one portion is cut for the poor, reminding us to always care for those who are in need. 

Then (and this is where it gets interesting if you have young kids), individual pieces are cut according to age, traditionally with the dad, the mom and then the children getting their share. God forbid the coveted coin fall on the border of two slices. It can get ugly and loud as siblings argue whether most of the coin surface can be found in “their” slice, like an undignified land squabble breaking out between neighbours. If vasilopita reminds some of you of King Cake or a galette des Rois, it’s because many cultures have some variation of this coveted cake. 

Attracting the good, warding off the bad

Turkey, Iran and Greece: Pomegranates, smashed or whole (New Year’s traditions around the world)

In Turkey and in Greece, some smash a pomegranate on their front doorsteps. The more seeds there are and the more they spread all over, the more abundance they represent. Being that smashed pomegranate seeds only represent a lot of unnecessary staining and cleaning for me, I prefer to leave this tradition alone. Pomegranates also make an appearance in Persian New Year, promising abundance and fertility. 

My favourite Greek tradition is entering a house on the first day of the New Year with the right foot. An aversion to all things left, including left-handed people — historically associated with bad luck — seems to be a universal thing. Guests who come over must enter with the right foot or risk inducing the wrath of household members. If they’re smart, they also know to bring something sweet to start the year off well. 

Depending on how seriously you take this tradition in Greece, you’ll go to great lengths to invite someone over who represents good things, while simultaneously doing all you can to prevent someone with bad luck or bad habits from entering your household, lest their bad luck or bad choices rub off on you. The superstitious truly go out of their way to ensure not just anyone comes over. Scotland has a similar tradition. The first person to enter a household for the new year is referred to as a “first footer.” 

When that first visit is made, they must enter carrying something sweet. Once, my mother, realizing in a panic that she was the first person visiting me on New Year’s Day, grabbed some random Tim Horton’s sugar packets found in her glove compartment because she was already outside my house and refused to enter without something sweet. 

In Ecuador, they burn the bad parts of the year by creating effigies representing the people or the events that pissed them off and burning them in a huge bonfire. I rather like the cleansing and therapeutic feeling of a fire burning what disappointed you and not allowing it to follow you into the new year. 

I’ve heard that the Irish bang bread against the walls to ward off bad spirits. In similar fashion, many Asian cultures will set off firecrackers with the same aim. Scaring off evil spirits is why people in Denmark traditionally break dishes and glasses against each other’s front doors. 

Assigning meaning to transitions 

new year's traditions around the world
Ecuador: Burning effigies (New Year’s traditions around the world)

New Year’s may just be an arbitrary day on the calendar, and most resolutions are doomed to fail, simply because we don’t just magically change who we are at the stroke of midnight, but traditions and resolutions speak to a deeper need for humanity to find meaning in life. It’s not just about celebrating the new, but also about taking stock of our lives, reassessing what we want out of it, thinking about how we can do things a little differently. 

“And now we welcome the New Year, full of things that have never been,” writes Rilke. New Year’s is about possibilities. Getting another shot.

It’s appropriate that New Year’s takes place on the first day of January, a month named after Janus — the Roman god with two faces, allowing him to look simultaneously into the past and the future. It’s what we do on New Year’s, after all. We look behind us on the year that’s coming to an end. We reassess, we reminisce, we create Instagram year-end retrospectives set to catchy beats, we get nostalgic, we take stock, we try to establish meaning. And we look forward to what’s to come. Two-faced Janus symbolizes duality, transitions, doorways. We’re in a revolving door, still able to see behind us and about to thrust ourselves forward into something new.  

In Psychology Today, writer David Ropeik asserts that “New Year’s resolutions are examples of the universal human desire to have some control over what lies ahead, because the future is unsettlingly unknowable.” These are fundamentally the same reasons why religion had and continues to have such a stronghold over so many; the deep desire for meaning and a way of overcoming the fear of mortality. 

“As common as these shared behaviors are across both history and culture,” Ropeik continues, “it’s fascinating to realize that the special ways that people note this unique passage of one day into the next are probably all manifestations of the human animal’s fundamental imperative for survival.” 

It’s only by expanding our lens beyond our own traditions, seeing how everyone else celebrates and commemorates this time of year, that we realize how connected we all are. How unimaginatively similar, how equally vulnerable, hopeful, terrified, fragile and human — right down to our hopes and dreams, our fears, and our failings — we all are.

“La fin est dans le commencement et cependent on continue.” 

“The end is in the beginning and yet you go on,” wrote Samuel Beckett in Endgame. It’s a depressing one-act play where nothing much happens. No real plot, no resolution. Life can feel like that on some days. Even some years. 

The end is in the beginning. We begin to die the minute we’re born. That realization is understandably a little depressing, but it’s also just an obvious fact. Anything that reminds us of the passing of time and our own mortality — birthdays, new years or the death of someone we know — is also just a personal nudge to snatch meaning from whatever time we have been given. Luckily, and unlike Beckett’s Endgame, most of us are gifted more than one act. 

It’s in our celebrations that we mourn our imperfection. It’s in our silly little traditions weighed down by all this impossible, tender, naive symbolism that we seek to re-establish some control and meaning over what often breaks and disappoints us — and re-emerge triumphant. The magic of do-overs is not to be underestimated and it’s most certainly worth celebrating. Happy New Year. ■

To read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis, please click here.