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Unique New Year's Eve Traditions From Around The World

Picture of Stephanie Carwin
Stephanie Carwin
Updated: 6 January 2017
While the competition for the most dazzling New Year’s fireworks in the world seems to grow each year – from Sydney to Dubai to Paris – there are many other unique traditions around the globe that try to get the New Year started on the right foot. Many of these date back much further than the Gregorian calendar by which we now determine when the new year begins, but whatever the particular tradition, they all connect to our common desire to take a moment to shake off the bad vestiges of the past and start anew toward a better future.


Throwing things out the window

Cleaning the house is a widely practiced year-end tradition – from Ireland to Japan – but the people of Puerto Rico take it one step further. Once they have travelled through the house with a bucket of water, presumably to collect any lingering bad energy/spirits, they throw the water right out the window. In Italy and South Africa, they take this one step further still: even old pots and furniture and appliances are jettisoned. More recently, these traditions have subsided due to the obvious danger involved.

New Year’s Tin | © ZeroOne/Flickr

New Year’s Tin | © ZeroOne/Flickr

Reading the future in mysterious shapes of molten metal

In northern European countries like Finland and Germany, a more contemplative approach to the New Year is involved, in a tradition that traces back to the ancient practice of molybdomancy – a kind of divination using molten metal. In Finland, horseshoe-shaped pieces of tin are melted and then dropped into a bucket of cold water, instantly re-solidifying the metal into strange shapes. In Germany, lead is used, and is thus known as Bleigießen, or lead-pouring. The mysterious shapes are then studied to determine what the coming year holds in store.

Fabio Mauri, The Western Wall or the Wailing Wall (installation view, detail, Venice Biennale, 2015) | © Stephanie Carwin

Fabio Mauri, ‘The Western Wall or the Wailing Wall’ (installation view, Venice Biennale, 2015) | © Stephanie Carwin

Circling the block with suitcases

For those who want to take a more proactive role in their own futures, the tradition in Colombia might be just the thing. Colombians take their suitcases for a stroll around the block, with the intention of bringing travel into their plans for the New Year.

© Stephanie Carwin

© Stephanie Carwin

Wearing the appropriately colored undergarment

If you prefer a more discreet way to influence the coming year, another Latin American tradition involves donning underwear corresponding to what you would like to bring to yourself in the New Year. Red (a color also worn in Spain and Italy) signals a desire for luck in love, while yellow is for good fortune and prosperity. In Brazil, white is worn for good luck, which they consolidate with their tradition of jumping over seven waves while making wishes for the New Year.

Eating the right foods

In Italy, lentils are an important part of a New Year’s Eve dinner, usually served in the dish cotechino con lenticchie (pork sausage with lentils). Lentils, which look like coins, are considered good luck in a number of cultures. In the American South, it is traditional to serve black-eyed peas, though the reasoning relates back more to survival after the Civil War. Pork is also widely chosen as a good-luck food on New Year’s, since it is believed that pigs push forward into the future, and thus symbolize progress.

New Year’s Grapes | © Alex Guerrero/Flickr

New Year’s Grapes | © Alex Guerrero/Flickr

Gobbling down grapes

In Spain, it is not only the food itself – in this case, grapes – which is important, but the manner in which the food is eaten. At midnight, a grape is eaten and a wish made simultaneously at each stroke of the clock. The tradition of las doce uvas de la suerte (the 12 lucky grapes) reportedly started as a way for grape growers to shed their excess harvest, and is now practiced in some Latin American countries as well.

Times Square New Year's Eve 2015 New York City | © Anthony Quintano/Flickr

Times Square New Year’s Eve 2015 New York City | © Anthony Quintano/Flickr

Watching the ball drop

When it comes to countdowns, there is perhaps no better known tradition than the one practiced by millions of Americans in the United States (live or via their TV), namely counting down to the New Year as the ball drops over Times Square in New York City. The tradition started in 1907, as a promotional draw for the newspaper for which Times Square was named, and it is actually based on an old way of keeping time from the 19th century. Known as a ‘time ball,’ these were dropped at a specific time to help seafarers correctly navigate based on celestial positions. While scientific advances may have long since surpassed such modes of keeping time, the collective tradition of the New York ball drop has remained.

Ringing (a lot of) bells

In Japan, New Year’s celebrations are an important cultural event, and after eating toshikoshi-soba (year-crossing buckwheat noodles) on New Year’s Eve to help ensure a long life commensurate with the length of the noodles, bells from temples around the country slowly ring 108 times – 107 before midnight and one time after the New Year has begun. The number is supposed to correspond to all of our human worldly desires and negative emotions, which the ringing of the bells is meant to clear away.

Bringing good fortune to your doorstep

Scotland’s New Year’s celebration is a serious affair known as Hogmanay, inherited from their Viking past. Part of the tradition includes the ‘first-footer,’ the first guest of the New Year who is supposed to be a tall dark stranger bringing gifts like bread, salt, coal, and whisky. In Greece, the doorstep is also a significant site of a New Year tradition, namely the breaking open of a pomegranate on the doorstep for good fortune and prosperity (the more seeds, the better). This is also followed by a good person – often a child – stepping into the house with their right foot (Kalo Podariko in Greek, which means ‘good foot’) to augur a good year ahead.

Taking a cold plunge

Finally, what better way to ring in the New Year but a tonic plunge in freezing cold water? In cold climates like the Netherlands, where the tradition has existed since 1960, or as far and wide as Coney Island and Berlin, brave souls jump in icy waters as an invigorating kick-start to the New Year. We’re guessing it’s an effective to clear your mind, so you can begin the year afresh.