Most of us are familiar with the New Year’s Eve ritual that takes place in Times Square every year. Revelers fill the square of bright lights, ready to ring in the New Year with fireworks and hopefully a midnight kiss. When the ball drops, a brief snippet of Auld Lang Syne hauntingly fills the square, followed by the timeless ballad of Frank Sinatra. “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere” fills us with a sense of optimism for everything that can be in 2020.
In the same 24 hours, we see a number of images around the world of similar celebrations, which might lead you to think that everyone everywhere celebrates New Years on December 31st and January 1st of the Gregorian Calendar…but that’s just not true.
There are a number of cultures around the world that operate on a different (usually lunar) calendar, and New Year’s customs vary from place to place. Even for those cultures that celebrate January 1st have some ceremonies and customs you may not have heard before.
It does seem that across the board, gathering the family together for a festive meal, exchanging gifts, eating special foods, and observing purifying rites of passage meant to facilitate a good new year are universal. Let’s take a look at five different New Year’s Celebrations around the world, from China to Scotland and a few places in between.
Hogmanay is the last day of the year, followed by celebrations on New Year’s Day—some of which may derive from the ancient Viking customs of Yuletide. After midnight, first-footers enter the homes of friends or family bearing good-luck gifts like shortbread, whisky, or fruitcake. In some locations, fireballs are swung about, then tossed into the harbor. The home is blessed, sprinkled with water, then subjected to smoking bundles of juniper—after which the doors are flung open to let in the New Year, and everyone sits down to breakfast. Perhaps the most famous custom is the singing of Auld Lang Syne.
Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year begins with the new moon that falls between late January and the first part of February. Families gather for the most important meal of the year, a reunion dinner that often features dumplings. Homes are cleaned to brush away bad luck and make way for incoming good luck, while windows and doors are decorated with red papercut art or poems of good fortune. Firecrackers are lit, and a traditional lion dance may be performed to chase away evil spirits. Friends and relatives give each other money in red packets, and observe local customs to honor their ancestors.
Rosh Hashanah is the calendrical head of the lunar cycle in Judaism, marked by the sounding of a ram’s horn over two days of prayer, introspection and a Divine judgement to be sealed ten days later on Yom Kippur. Families gather together for a symbolic meal full of simanim—foods of good fortune, the Hebrew names of which may recall biblical verses, such as pomegranates, dates, and the rosh (head) of an animal; Sephardic Jews from the Mediteranean use a sheep’s head, while European Ashkenazi Jews use a fish head. Apples are also dipped in honey for a sweet new year.
Nowruz is the Iranian New Year, and has been celebrated for almost 3,000 years. Though this day of the vernal (spring) equinox is sacred to Zoroastrians, it is widely celebrated by diverse communities in Iran, Central Asia, and the Balkans. Friends and relatives visit one another and gather around the Haft-sin Table, which contains seven auspicious foods that may correspond to the seven celestial bodies of ancient astrology (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Sun and Moon). The heralds of Nowruz are the bearded Amu Nowruz—who tosses out gifts like his Occidental counterpart, Santa—and the soot-faced, clownlike, dancing Haji-Firuz.
Hindu New Year
Hindu New Year varies within India, and depends on whether that locality uses a lunar or solar calendar. The solar calendar places the New Year in the middle of our April, while the lunar calendar places it in our March. But in some parts of India, it coincides with Diwali, the five-day Hindu festival of lights, which symbolizes the spiritual victory of good over evil and knowledge of ignorance. Indians prepare for Diwali by cleaning the home and lighting numerous oil lamps. They dress in their finest clothes and gather the family for a feast of sharing sweets and gift-giving.