Top 10 New Year Traditions Around the World

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New Year’s Eve is a time for fresh starts, hopes and dreams and saying goodbye to the old year in a suitably, celebratory fashion.

Around the world people come together as families, friends and communities to mark the beginning of a brand new year with food, drink, fireworks, ancient rituals and religious customs.

Here’s a list of our favourite New Year traditions around the world.

Germany & Finland

How about a spot of fortune telling to ring in the New Year?

Molybdomancy is an ancient technique of divination that involves interpreting the shapes made by dropping melted lead into cold water.

On New Year’s Eve in Germany and Finland, family and friends come together for a spot of lead pouring – Bleigießen in German and uudenvuodentina in Finnish – and make predictions for the coming year.

It isn’t an exact science and there are no firm rules on what the shapes actually represent. A bubbly surface can mean money is coming your way; a broken shape misfortune. Ships refer to travelling; a ball means luck; a monkey says beware of false friends; and a hedgehog means someone is jealous of you.

But don’t get too worried if you receive a bad fortune – the predictions are just for fun.

Step 1: Melting the lead
Step 1: Melting the lead. Photo by mas_at
Pouring the lead into the water
Pouring the lead into the water. Photo by Michael Sonnabend
The final result
The final result. Photo by Steffen Zahn

Mexico

In Mexico, families celebrate New Year (Vispera de Año Nuevo) with a mix of religion, tradition, superstition and special festive foods.

Families decorate their homes in colours that represent wishes for the upcoming year: red for love, yellow for work and green for money.

For even more wishes, Mexicans eat a grape (preferably seedless) with each of the 12 clock chimes at the stroke of midnight, while making a wish with each grape.

To start the year with a clean slate, another tradition involves writing a list of all the bad and unhappy events that happened over the year, then before midnight the list is thrown into a fire and the negative feelings of the past year are gone.

In keeping with the country’s Catholic traditions, Mexican sweet bread (Rosca de Reyes) is baked with a coin or charm hidden in the dough. When the bread is served, whoever gets the slice with the coin or charm is said to be blessed with good luck for the New Year.

New Year's in Mexico is a family occassion
New Year’s in Mexico is a family occassion. Photo by Carlos Adampol Galindo
12 grapes, 12 wishes.
12 grapes, 12 wishes. Photo by jacinta lluch valero
Rosca de Reyes.
Rosca de Reyes. Photo by Rebecca T. Caro
Baby Jesus charm baked into the Rosca de Reyes
Baby Jesus charm baked into the Rosca de Reyes. Photo by Berenice Garcia

Wales

Gifts are the order of the day on January 1 in Wales.

Calennig, the Welsh name for New Year, means New Year celebration or gift and since ancient times the tradition in Wales has been to give gifts and money to friends, family and neighbours.

Today, it is customary to give bread and cheese on New Year morning, with children receiving skewered apples covered with raisins and fruit. In some parts of Wales, people must visit all their relatives by midday to collect their Calennig.

That’s a lot of bread and cheese!

Bread and cheese for Calennig
Bread and cheese for Calennig. Photo by Lori C.

Japan

The Japanese New Year (shogatsu) is marked with a range of cultural and religious traditions from eating special family meals and making temple visits to sending postcards.

Since 1873 shogatsu has been celebrated on January 1, but traditionally it followed the Chinese lunar calendar.

Ōmisoka (New Year’s Eve) honours Toshigami, the New Year’s god, and across the country people celebrate with concerts, countdowns and fireworks as well as more traditional activities.

It is customary to send handwritten New Year’s Day postcards (nengajo) to friends and family and the post office guarantees any cards sent in time will arrive on January 1.

Food plays a big part in New Year’s celebrations. People eat a special selection of dishes called osechi-ryori, including of boiled seaweed (konbu), fish cakes (kamaboko), mashed sweet potato with chestnut (kurikinton), simmered burdock root (kinpira gobō), and sweetened black soybeans (kuromame).

Around 11pm, people gather at home for one last time in the old year and eat a bowl of noodles—long noodles are associated with crossing over from one year to the next.

On the stroke of midnight, Buddhist Temples across the country ring their bells exactly 108 times. One of the most breath-taking celebrations takes place at the Zojoji Temple in Tokyo where thousands of people gather to release silver helium balloons carrying New Year’s wishes into the midnight sky.

After the clocks strike 12, many families visit a shrine or temple for Hatsumode (first shrine visit of the year).

On New Year’s Day, the Japanese give money to children in a tradition known as otoshidama. Money is handed in small decorated envelopes called pochibukuro. The amount of money given depends on the age of the child, but it is not uncommon for kids to get more than ¥10,000 (£75).

Amazake Drink
Amazake Drink. Photo by tokyofoodcast
Handpainted New Year's Day postcards (nengajo)
Hand-painted New Year’s Day postcards (nengajo). Photo by Lawrie Hunter
Tradition known as otoshidama
Tradition known as otoshidama. Photo by John Nakamura Remy

Philippines

In the Philippines, New Year’s Eve (Bisperas ng Bagong Taon) is a public holiday and people usually celebrate in the company of family and close friends. Traditionally, most households host or attend a Media Noche (dinner party).

Most Filipinos follow a set of traditions that included wearing clothes with dots (in the belief that circles attract money and fortune) and bright colours to show enthusiasm for the coming year.

Throwing coins at the stroke of midnight is said to increase wealth as does serving circular shaped fruits and shaking of coins inside a metal can while walking around the house.

Things really get loud as people make noises by blowing on cardboard or plastic horns (torotot) banging pots and pans, playing music, or lighting fireworks to scare away bad spirits.

Wear polka-dots for luck
Wear polka-dots for luck. Photo by Orin Zebest
New Year's Horns for sale.
New Year’s Horns for sale. Photo by Hungarian Snow

Scotland

Hogmanay is the Scots word for the last day of the year and has become one of the world’s most recognised New Year celebrations.

The roots of Hogmanay date back to the celebration of the winter solstice, incorporating elements of the Gaelic celebration of Samhain.

There are many customs, local and national, linked with Hogmanay. The most widespread is the practice of ‘first-footing’ which starts immediately after midnight. First-footing involves being the first person to cross the threshold of a friend or neighbour’s home and giving symbolic gifts such as salt, coal, shortbread, whisky, and black bun (a rich fruit cake) to bring luck to the householder. This goes on throughout the early hours of the morning and into the next day, and can last well into mid-January.

But it’s not just about ancient traditions in Scotland. On New Year’s Day a new custom has begun to take hold – the Loony Dook. Since 1987, the brave (and the mad) have taken the plunge into the icy cold River Forth in Queensferry, Edinburgh for a refreshing start to the year. A sure fire way to get rid of a hangover, the event attracts thousands of Loonies, spectators and swimmers alike.

Hogmanay Fire
Hogmanay Fire. Photo by Peter Hunter
Shortbread for 'first-footing'.
Shortbread for ‘first-footing’. Photo by theilr
Revelers at Loony Dook.
Revelers at Loony Dook. Photo by Paddy Patterson

Ecuador

Crossing dressing, puppets and fire – just another New Year’s Eve in Ecuador.

One of Ecuador’s quirkiest traditions sees men putting on their finest frocks and dressing up as women to represent the “widow” of the year that has passed.

However, the focus of the country’s celebrations comes in a much more fiery form.

At midnight, families and communities come together to light fireworks and burn Monigotes – papier-mâché effigies – of politicians, public figures and popular culture icons.

The puppets range from small, simple, homemade offerings to giant, detailed, professionally made creations.

The puppets are filled with sawdust or newspaper and, in some cases, firecrackers. Burning the Monigotes represents getting rid of the bad feelings, events and spirits of the past year.

Buzz Lightyear Monigotes
Buzz Lightyear Monigotes. Photo by Carlos Daniel Feijoo Miño
Hell Boy Monigotes
Hell Boy Monigotes. Photo by Carlos Daniel Feijoo Miño
Monigotes of all sizes for sale
Monigotes of all sizes for sale. Photo by Punto Clave FM
Men dressed as the "Widow" of the old year
Men dressed as the “Widow” of the old year. Photo by Francisco Laso

Greece

While Christmas in Greece is a relatively solemn occasion, New Year’s Day is filled with celebrations and gift giving.

January 1 is the name day of Aghios Vassilis (St. Basil), the Greek Santa Claus, and many customs are based upon his arrival.

On the morning of New Year’s Eve, children go door to door and ask permission to sing kalanta (carols) to bring good wishes to their neighbours, announce the coming of Aghios Vassilis and bless the house.

Later in the evening, families gather for a meal of roast lamb or pork and an extra place is set at the table for Aghios Vassilis.

An onion is hung on the front door (alongside a pomegranate that has been hanging since Christmas) as a symbol of rebirth and growth.

Around midnight the household lights are switched off and the family goes outside. One lucky person is given the pomegranate and smashes it against the door as the clock strikes midnight.

As the New Year rolls over, Greek families all over the world cut into a cake bearing the name of Aghios Vassilis – the Vassilopita.

Each Vassilopita is baked with a coin or medallion hidden inside and whoever gets it will be rewarded with good fortune in the New Year.

Greek New Year's Cake - Vassilopita
Greek New Year’s Cake – Vassilopita. Photo by Vassilis Online
Smashed Pomegranate for luck.
Smashed Pomegranate for luck. Photo by pizzodisevo

Italy

As you may expect, New Year’s celebrations in Italy start with eating a whole heap of delicious foods.

The evening begins with the traditional dish, “cotechino e lenticchie”. Cotechino is a savoury pork sausage that contains “lo zampone”, the actual hoof of the pig, and is a symbol of abundance. Lenticchie (lentils) are believed to bring good luck and prosperity in the coming year to those who eat them on New Year’s Eve and represent the money that you will earn in the coming year. So the more you eat the more you earn!

If you’re looking for love, or a bit of help in the fertility department, red underwear is the way to go on New Year’s Eve. To complete the ritual, these red delicates must be thrown out on January 1.

Sadly, several of Italy’s more wild New Year traditions are rarely seen today.

In the past, people would throw old personal effects out their windows (it doesn’t hurt to be wary of open windows on New Year’s just in case) and smash plates, glasses, vases and other pottery against the ground to drive away bad spirits.

Cotechino e lenticchie.
Cotechino e lenticchie. Photo by Alpha
Lucky red underpants: for love & fertility.
Lucky red underpants: for love & fertility. Photo by kelly

Chile

The citizens of Chile have developed a range of traditions to bring them luck and help make their wishes come true in the New Year.

Several sure-fire ways of scoring yourself some good fortune involve food and drink. Eating lentils and downing a dozen grapes – one for each month of the year – on New Year’s Eve will ensure prosperity in the coming year as will drinking a glass of champagne with a gold ring inside.

Sticking a luca (a $1000 peso bill) in your shoe before midnight will see it will multiply in the coming year and it you’re feeling generous and want to spread the good will around give your friends, family and neighbours ribbon-wrapped sprigs of wheat at midnight.

But it’s not all about money.

Wear yellow undies for romance, wear them inside out for a well-stocked closet and wheel your luggage around the block if you’re dreaming of travel.

Give sprigs of wheat to bring good luck to your neighbours
Give sprigs of wheat to bring good luck to your neighbours. Photo by JuZ
Eating lentils brings good fortune
Eating lentils brings good fortune. Photo by Adam

Main image by Prachanart Viriyaraks

Top 10 New Year Traditions Around the World was last modified: November 18th, 2015 by Kara Segedin
Author: Kara Segedin (256 posts)

Writer, traveller, Tweeter, blogger and part-time adventurer. A kiwi living in London off to explore the world! I can never travel enough!