A Brief Look at New Year's Traditions Around the World
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A Brief Look at New Year's Traditions Around the World

Although New Year's Eve and New Year's Day are celebrated by most cultures around the world, customs can vary greatly, as this article will demonstrate.


Japanese tradition calls for a full week of preparation in advance of New Year's Day, or Oshogatsu. All debts must be paid, all disagreements must be resolved and forgiven, and the house must be thoroughly cleaned.  Just before midnight, one hundred and eight bells ring to symbolize the elimination of one hundred and eight troubles. Thus, the Japanese start the year with no troubles, debts or disagreements, and clean house.  The day after New Year’s is known as "First Writing Day," when the Japanese write out their hopes and dreams for the new year.

The kadomatsu is a traditional Japanese decoration of the New Year placed in pairs in front of homes to welcome ancestral spirits or kami of the harvest.


The Scottish New Year celebration, known as Hogmanay, typically involves midnight parades, games, food, and exceedingly goodwill spread to one and all.  Another Scottish New Year's traditions is "first-footing," where neighbors visit each other shortly after midnight to impart New Year's wishes.

Catalonian Sun Goddess from a Hogmanay street party


Like most festivals in Spain, New Year's Eve, known as Nochevieja, is usually a family affair centered around the home. On the stroke of midnight, it is traditional to eat 12 grapes, one on each stroke of the clock to bring good luck during the New Year.  It is also traditional to listen to the clock striking from Puerta del Sol in Madrid, usually via the television.  Even young people won’t go out with their friends until they’ve seen the New Year in with their families. Throughout the country, there are street parties and special events held in hotels and clubs everywhere.

Madrid Puerta del Sol on New Year's Eve


One of the most cherished festivals of the year, unofficial celebrations for New Year commence as soon as Christmas day ends.  During the period in between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, business organizations as well as people send out special New Year cards to all formal associations as a sign of gratitude and best luck for the coming year.  Also, many organizations reward employees with bonuses, and many of them also host a whole week New Year reception in the first week of the New Year. On New Year's Eve, traditional Dutch burn bonfires of Christmas trees in the streets as a way to purge the old and welcome the new.  And, of course, fireworks can be seen and heard at the stroke of midnight.

Firework displays are typical in the Netherlands.


In Greece, New Year's day is also the Festival of St. Basil, one of the founders of the Greek Orthodox Church. The celebrations include Vasilopitta, or St Basil's cake which is an almond cake with a silver or gold coin baked inside. Whoever finds the coin in their piece of cake will have extra good luck in the coming year.  On this day, any vessel of water is emptied and filled with fresh water (an echo of ancient New Year traditions), and the herb basil is connected to this day, believed to have both healing and protective powers.  Also, per Greek custom, it is considered lucky to gamble on this day--whether you win or lose--and traditionally, people gather to play cards on a table covered with green felt.



Food, family, and friends are said to define traditional New Year's celebrations in the Philippines--but with a few unusual twists.  For example, is it the custom to wear clothes with circular patterns like polka dots on this day, the belief being that circles attract money and fortune.  For the same reason, many circular fruits are served on New Year's Day. Other traditions include throwing coins at the stroke of midnight to increase wealth for the coming year, and children jumping up high which is believed to cause a growth spurt.  And as in much of the East, New Year's would be complete without fireworks.

Fireworks in the Philippines


In Austria, New Year's Eve is called Sylvesterabend, which is the "Eve of Saint Sylvester."  Punch made with cinnamon, sugar, and red wine in made his honor and taverns and inns are decorated with evergreen wreaths, with confetti, streamers, and champagne everywhere you look.  Evil spirits of the old year are chased away by the firing of mortars called böller, and Midnight Mass is attended where trumpets are blown from church towers at midnight at which time people exchange kisses.  Fireworks are a big part of the festivities in larger cities, and in Vienna, the Straus operetta Die Fledermaus is performed every New Year's Eve and New Year's Day at the Vienna State Opera.  New Year's Eve begins with the Carnival season called Fasching and lasts until Lent, and then on New Year's morning, mass is attended and then children go door to door singing carols. Family tables are decorated with little miniature pigs made of marzipan, maple sugar, fudge, cookie dough or chocolate, and the four leaf clover is also another common symbol. 

Fireworks over St_-Anton-am-Arlberg-Tyrol


In Brazil, the lentil is believed to signify wealth, so on the first day of the New Year, lentil soup or lentils and rice is served. On New Year’s Eve, priestesses of the local macumba voodoo cult dress in blue skirts and white blouses for a ceremony dedicated to the goddess of water, Yemanja. A sacrificial boat laden with flowers, candles, and jewelry is pushed out to sea from Brazil's famous Ipenama beach in Rio de Janeiro, with thousands of people attending the festive celebation.

New Year's Eve in Rio


In Egypt, New Year is a public, very festive holiday.  Although the New Year has its appointed date, they still observe the custom that the new crescent moon must be seen before the official announcement is made, with the sighting carried out at the Muhammad Ali mosque in Cairo. Word is then passed on to the religious leader known as the "Grand Mufti" who proclaims the New Year.  The men who have been waiting outside the mosque wish each other a happy New Year by saying Kol Sana We Enta Tayeb! and then go home to tell their families, at which time all families sit down for a special New Year dinner. On this day, even the poorest families serves meat--but no alcohol is permitted.  On new Year’s Day, everyone dresses up in special clothes and even the girls (who are usually only allowed to wear black) are permitted to wear bright colors. Children are given sweets, with boys given a sweet shaped like a boy on horseback.  In some villages, the head of the family goes house to house wishing each family a happy New Year, collecting people as they go, until they end up at the Mayor's house.

The Mosque of Muhammad Ali


The French have a variety of New Year or Jour des Étrennes traditions. New Year’s Eve is typically celebrated with a feast around midnight called Le réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre which is carried on until well after midnight. New Year’s Eve is celebrated with balls and parties (une soirée dansante) which always include celebratory foods like Champagne and foie gras.  In Southwestern France, it's traditional to attend evening Mass, followed by a torchlight procession into the vineyards where mulled wine awaits revelers.  Unlike in the US where kissing under the mistletoe is a Christmas tradition, everyone in France kisses at midnight on New Year’s Eve under the mistletoe (called le gui ). New Year’s Day in France (Jour des Étrennes) is a national holiday.

Fireworks in Paris


The Pakistani New Year, a festival referred to as Nawrooz, is a time of celebrations, merriment, and revelry. Celebrated in March in most of the country, the New Year begins the instant the sun is no longer in the astrological sign of Pisces and enters Arie. A celebration lasting six days, people welcome the New Year with the hope that the coming year will be more prosperous and successful.  Various regions across the country have different reasons to celebrate and their style of celebrating often varies, with people in the mountain valleys like in the Chitral region observing the New Year as the harvest time of grapes and walnuts, better known as Mela Chiragan or Basant. One of the more common customs of Nawrooz is the practice of burning piles of wood in bonfires to symbolize the destruction of any remaining evil from the previous year.

Group of Pakistani men during Nawrooz


In Switzerland, people celebrate Old Sylvester's Day on January 13th according to the Julian calendar.  People go through the streets dressed in costumes and hats representing good and evil spirits.  Each year, around 200,000 party-goers from Switzerland and abroad visit the country's biggest New Year's Eve party to gaze up at the brightly lit night sky. What began in 1988 as just a small New Year's Eve party on Zurich's Gemüsebrücke, is now a permanent fixture in the city's calendar of events. “New Year Magic” is already in its tenth year under the patronage of the Zurich hoteliers' association.

Zurich's Gemüsebrücke on New Year’s Day

(My apologies for any custom described incorrectly due to mistranslation.)






Images via Wikipedia.org unless otherwise credited.


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Comments (16)

Another good one here......you have really got them coming. A refreshing read.

Thanks, Daniel. Glad to hear that!

very interesting, Happy New Year James

The same to you and yours, Carol! Thanks!

The humble lentil is wealth? Who would have ever guessed?

Well compiled world traditions on New Year, James.

Thanks Brenda and Deep Blue for your comments.

Very interesting. The 12 grape tradition is also practiced throughout Latin America. It is an Hispanic tradition to have some cash in your pocket when the clock strikes midnight.

Thanks for the additional insight, Peter!

I'm usually in bed by 10:30 PM, so I guess I lead a very boring life on New Year's Eve!

Just returning for a well deserved vote.....and to re-read this really lovable article

Thanks Sandy and Daniel for dropping by!

Impressive, well written and illustrated piece of writing..Thanks Sir

You're quite welcome, kind sir. It's always a pleasure to write for those like yourself who appreciate one's work.

I love reading your articles. I always learn something new from them.

Much appreciated, Sheila.