The holiday season is packed full of celebration. Christmas is of course one particularly popular and widely celebrated festival, but in addition there’s Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Sinterklaas, Yule, and plenty more. However, most of these are celebrated only by people from specific countries, communities, or cultures. New Year celebrations, on the other hand, tend to be shared by almost everyone.The Gregorian calendar is now used almost universally, and even people and cultures that have their own calendars typically use these calendars only within their communities, for community festivals and other traditions. New Year’s Eve is therefore one of the biggest and most widely celebrated occasions in the world, no matter who and where you are.
Nonetheless, large cultural differences do emerge. The basics of all New Year’s Eve celebrations tend to remain the same everywhere you go: parties, food, alcohol, and probably fireworks. However, beyond those basics, there are some unique New Year’s Eve traditions across the world, such as people in Mexico baking a coin into a loaf of bread, or Belgian farmers wishing their livestock a happy new year. Then there are the rather more strange traditions, such as stuffing twelve grapes into your mouth, swinging balls of fire around on the streets, and running around the streets with suitcases.
Here are a few New Year’s Eve traditions you probably haven’t heard of before.
Telling fortunes by reading molten metal
In several European and Nordic countries, and especially in Germany and Finland, there’s a New Year’s Eve tradition that involves melting a piece of metal – traditionally tin, but now usually a lead-based alloy – in a pan on the stove, and then dropping the molten metal into a pot or bucket of cold water. The cold water causes the metal to set into strange shapes, which are then analyzed and read for an indication of what the coming year will bring. In some traditions, the divination is done with the metal blob itself, but in other traditions, the blob is turned around and around by the light of a candle, and the shape of its shadow is what is read. The readings may be either literal or symbolic, and of course the interpretation varies wildly. Most people today don’t take the predictions seriously – it’s just a bit of New Year’s Eve fun.
People in El Salvador have a similar tradition, wherein they crack an egg into a glass of water before midnight and leave it till the next morning, when they predict what the year will bring based on the shape that the egg has taken.
Being the first person to set foot in a house
First-footing is popular mainly in Scotland, although there is a similar tradition in Georgia, and many Greek families also follow a similar tradition known as podariko. According to the tradition, the first person to enter a house after the stroke of midnight is said to bring fortune to the household. In Scotland, this person is known as the quaaltagh (the first-foot), and it is believed that a tall, dark-haired male quaaltagh brings good luck, while anyone else (short, fair-haired, or female) brings bad luck.
The tradition of first-footing is more popular and elaborate in some places than in others, and may involve the bringing of gifts, such as food, drink, and money, meant to signify an abundance of these in the coming year, as well as a bit of a party when the first-foot arrives. Sometimes a family may actually select a first-foot, to ensure that someone they “know” brings good fortune to them.
Swinging balls of fire while walking down the street
New Year’s Eve is a particularly big celebration in Scotland, where it’s actually known as Hogmanay, the last day of the year. There are numerous Hogmanay traditions here, but one of the more remarkable and spectacular ones is the fireball swinging, which happens in Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire. Here, chicken wire is used to make hollow balls that are filled with newspaper, rags, and twigs, and people gather at the designated location before midnight. When the local bell rings at midnight, people set fire to the balls, and proceed to walk down the street, swinging these blazing balls of fire around their heads at the end of a chain. As the fireball swinging has gotten more and more popular, it has turned into quite a major attraction, with huge crowds and other entertainment being organized, and it has also spread to other cities.
Walking around with an empty suitcase
People in South America must particularly love to travel, because that’s the focus of this New Year’s Eve tradition; walking around the block with an empty suitcase is meant to bring you plenty of travel and adventure in the coming year. The tradition is said to be popular in Costa Rica and Ecuador, but we’ve also heard about it being followed in Mexico, Venezuela, and other countries on the continent.
Wearing colorful underwear
Different countries and cultures have different associations for each of the various colors, and on New Year’s Eve, tradition often dictates the use of specific colors to achieve your desired outcomes. For example, in Brazil, it’s white to drive away evil spirits, and in Mexico, it’s red decorations for love and green for money. In Italy, Spain, and Turkey, wearing red underwear on New Year’s Eve is supposed to bring good luck, and in Ecuador and Colombia, the preferred color is yellow. Sometimes it’s not just about the color – in Turkey, for example, many people buy brand new underwear for New Year’s Eve.
Smashing old crockery against a good friend’s door
For most of us, waking up on New Year’s Day to find a pile of shattered crockery at your front door isn’t the ideal way to start the year. In Denmark, however, it means you can look forward to some fantastic luck in the year ahead. According to Danish tradition, plates and other items of crockery that are chipped, cracked, or otherwise unusable aren’t thrown away. They’re put aside to be used on New Year’s Eve. That’s when you take your pile of old, unwanted crockery, and smash it against the front doors of your favorite friends and family members. The bigger the pile, the better your luck, and the more loved you are by your friends and family.
Several other countries, including New Zealand, Australia, and the Philippines have a somewhat similar tradition that involves standing outside your front door or going around the neighborhood and hammering away at your pots and pans. In some places, such as the Philippines, this is just of many ways to make a lot of noise and drive away evil spirits; in others, it’s just a bit of fun.
Crumbling burnt paper into your drink
It’s said that during the time of the USSR, with religious celebrations being suppressed, people shifted their celebrations to secular holidays like New Year’s Eve. Even though people are now of course free to celebrate Christmas and any other religious festival, New Year’s Eve continues to be among the biggest celebrations of the year in Russia.
One of the slightly more unusual traditions involves writing a wish on a piece of paper and then setting it on fire. So far, so good. But then you dunk the ashes into your glass of champagne and quickly drink up!
Eating twelve grapes at midnight
We’ve already mentioned the Spanish tradition of red underwear on New Year’s Eve, but the tradition of eating twelve grapes is much more popular. It’s said that the tradition began one year when grape growers in Alicante had a massive surplus, and came up with this bright idea as a way to get rid of at least part of it. When the clock chimes at midnight, you’re supposed to eat one grape with every chime of the clock. Since you’re unlikely to be able to eat the grapes that quickly unless you swallow them whole, you end up with twelve grapes in your mouth. Then, with a mouth stuffed full of grapes, you wish your loved ones good health, raise a toast, and sip your drink.
Watching Dinner for One
There are plenty of Christmas-themed films and television shows across the world – Die Hard and Home Alone are just two that come to mind. New Year, on the other hand, doesn’t have too many of its own films, and in fact none that are wildly popular – except if you’re in Germany. It has become something of a German tradition to watch a 1963 television production of a short comedy sketch entitled Dinner for One on New Year’s Eve every year.
The sketch is about a rich 90-year-old Englishwoman who has an annual birthday celebration but whose friends have all passed away; her dinner, therefore, is for one, with just her old servant for company. In addition to performing his regular duties, keeps the conversation going by impersonating each of the guests in turn, all of which becomes increasingly difficult as he keeps sipping on the drinks. The sketch was originally written by British author Lauri Wylie, and the German production is in English, featuring British comedians Freddie Frinton and May Warden. The entire thing has nothing to do with New Year except for a toast that actually refers to the main character’s birthday, but it has somehow become an unbreakable New Year’s Eve tradition for Germans. Strangely, it’s also a reasonably popular New Year’s Eve tradition in Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, and Norway.
Throwing water out of your window
In Puerto Rico, it’s a New Year’s Eve tradition to throw a bucket of water out your window at midnight. The tradition is meant to represent cleaning your house and life, getting rid of the old, and keeping tears at bay. Of course, in modern cities, it’s not practical for people to be throwing buckets of water from their windows; nonetheless, some people keep the tradition by throwing just a glass of water, or perhaps sprinkling a nominal amount of water, just for the sake of tradition.
Dressing up as the “widow” of the year gone by
In Ecuador, men dress in drag on New Year’s Eve – specifically, as the “widow” of the year gone by. Somehow, no matter how good the year may have been, the point isn’t to look pretty. The men typically dress as garishly as possible, with exaggerated, clumsy makeup, skimpy but ill-fitting dresses, and cheap-looking wigs. They go out into the streets dancing, singing, and stopping cars. It’s part of the tradition for drivers to give them a few coins before being allowed to continue on their way.
Ecuadorian New Year celebrations also add a bit of a twist – or rather, two – to the burning of effigies that is popular in many parts of the world. The effigies here are often dressed up to look like public figures (often politicians) whom people would like to see less of in the coming year. In addition, if you’re brave and foolhardy enough to try it, it’s considered good luck to be able to jump over the burning effigy twelve times.
Spending the night in a cemetery
This is a relatively recent development in Chile, but it has quickly grown in popularity. The point isn’t the potential spookiness of it, but being close to family that has passed away. People in Chile spend New Year’s Eve in a cemetery where family members are buried, taking along food and drink, and sometimes lights and music too. When it began, supposedly in the ‘90s, people would climb over cemetery walls and gates, but the tradition now seems to have official sanction, with gates being opened specifically to allow people to follow this tradition, and often with city officials participating or at least welcoming the visitors.