Another year has begun! Around the world, those of us who have stepped over into a new calendar year this January 1st have undoubtedly celebrated in our own ways, be it with family, friends or as part of a peaceful night alone. Despite being nothing more than a bi-product of how we mark the passage of time, a New Year carries a symbolic significance; it feels like a mental, emotional and even spiritual re-start, where we draw a line under the year behind us and look ahead to the next 365 days. Perhaps you are celebrating memories and milestones, or looking forward to better things; either way, our brains can’t help but see the event through symbolic lenses, and we have plenty of ways to express and celebrate the feeling. We had a look around the world for some of the most colourful ways 2018 was ushered in:
For many cultures, there is the belief that the way we step over this threshold will set the tone for the following year. Unsurprisingly, various superstitions have evolved with fun little rituals to ‘guarantee’ good luck. Japan hosts one of the most traditional, ringing bells 108 times in order to bring cleanliness of the mind and soul. They also share a nearly universal belief that you should always enter the New Year smiling!
The metal casters of Finland have a similarly archaic-feeling tradition, this time attempting to divine what lies ahead in the coming year. They attempt this by casting molten tin into a bucket of cold water, reading the shapes like tealeaves or apple peels. This tradition probably stems from the Merovingian period in Finland’s early history, where Roman influence saw the Finns develop as well-respected craftspeople, known in particular for their fine weapons and jewellery.
Whilst it’s easy to see where these practises have come from, many countries celebrate in far obscurer, and much more ridiculous ways! In the Philippines, good luck in the New Year is all about making money. How to they encourage those lovely round coins to come towards them? By surrounding themselves with as many round objects as possible. Round food, round decorations, round accessories – the more circles you have, the more drawn to you the coins will be! Colombia are even more literal with their good luck charms, carrying suitcases around with them all day in hopes of a travel-filled year.
Understandably, many cultures attempt to create prosperity by celebrating it. In Estonia, families usher in a year of plenty by eating seven meals on New Year’s Eve (like smiling Japan, they start the year as they mean to go on). Interestingly, the tradition in Spain and many Hispanic cultures of eating 12 grapes is a bit of a twist on this – instead of wishing for a plentiful harvest, the tradition was actually created as a reaction to one. It is an unusually recent creation, started by Alicante’s grape farmers in 1909 as a way to make some money off of the surplus grapes from that year’s unexpectedly large harvest. It was a clever business rouse, and is now a beloved part of many Spanish New Year celebrations.
Possible the most energetic of these ‘good luck’ traditions is Denmark’s ‘high jump’. The Danish ‘jump’ into the New Year by launching themselves off piles of stacked chairs – that sounds less like a recipe for good luck, and more like one for injuries! However, they aren’t stopping there. A strong New Year’s theme for many cultures is the idea of purging unwanted elements from the past, often by destroying something. In Denmark, amidst all the lunatics leaping off of chairs, this means smashing their chipped and unwanted crockery. Romania had a similar tradition, throwing the unwanted plates out the window, but as you can imagine, the practice didn’t translate well to high-rise urban living. In South Africa, they take this idea a step further, throwing whole pieces of unwanted furniture out of their windows! Meanwhile, in Ecuador, paper-filled scarecrows are burned along with photos from the past year – out with the old, and in with the new.
Of these ‘purge’ traditions, the most literal comes from the Chumbivilcas Province in Peru. A small village practise, rather than burning effigies or breaking plates, the locals take their issues out on the source. Every year ends with the Takanakuy Festival, a socially approved time to settle scores from the past year with fist fights! The idea is to enter the New Year with a clean slate and no bad blood – it seems like an odd way to celebrate, but in a small village where everyone knows everybody else, it isn’t too hard to imagine how the first Takanakuy Festival started!
In fact, the only country that seems to want to say a fond farewell to its past is Chile. Chilean families spend the night of the 31st in the company of their deceased loved ones; far from the parties and fireworks we are used to, they welcome in the new Year by sleeping at the cemetery with those that were closest to them.
As Chile shows, some countries’ traditions are closer to their superstitious roots than others. Puerto Rico throw pails of water out of their windows to drive away evil spirits, whilst Ireland scare away their spirits by beating the walls of their home with bread. Both ideas are a way of protecting the household, playing off of the idea of spiritual ‘thresholds’ that make a family’s space safe from anything spooky. Over in Scotland, they take a different approach, instead placating any bad spirits with gifts; the first person to step over the house’s threshold in the New Year goes armed with a present, to keep any lurking bad luck away.
It’s curious what odd little rituals can become beloved family traditions, even long after the superstitions fade. Yet even if we have left such beliefs behind, there’s still that little satisfaction in starting off the New Year right, as if putting the right foot forward at the off will have a positive snowball effect for the next 365 days.
However you welcomed in 2018, here’s to a positive one! As for our list, we think the prize for the strangest tradition goes to Siberia, whose hardy people may be found carrying tree trunks and jumping into frozen lakes. Why? Well, why not?