In 1907, to bring attention to The New York Times’s new headquarters in Times Square, the paper’s owner, Adolph Ochs, came up with the idea of drawing a crowd to watch a giant ball drop at the stroke of midnight. Thus began a spectacle that attracts millions of television viewers and tens of thousands—not infrequently in freezing temperatures—into the Square each year. Watching the ball drop has become as American as Mom’s apple pie. Which prompts the question, how is New Year’s Eve celebrated in other countries? In answer, here are but a few festive traditions:
In Brazil people flock to the beaches—it is, after all, summer there—and tradition dictates that you wear all white, as it symbolizes purity. Immediately after midnight, you’re supposed to jump seven waves and make seven wishes. The tradition is rooted in paying homage to Yemanja, the goddess of water.
New Year’s is time to do a little housekeeping in Denmark. To show their friends how much they’re cared for, the Danes gather up old, broken plates and kitchenware and lob them at their friends . . . or leave them on their doorstep. The more shattered kitchen debris one accumulates on his doorstep, the better off he’ll be.
Having spare grapes on hand isn’t a tough assignment for the average Spaniard. In Spain, come New Year’s Eve everyone grabs 12 grapes and gobbles them up, one at each stroke of the clock as it counts down to midnight. This tradition is called las doce uvas de la suerte and began in the 19th century as a means of warding off evil while boosting one’s chances of a prosperous and lucky new year.
Leave it to the French to bring in the New Year with food and wine. And not just any ordinary wine, but champagne! Of course. And no one in France would ever be guilty of skipping the traditional foods to go along with the champagne: oysters, turkey, goose, or a Cornish hen. (Surely there are some vegetarians in France, no? Don’t they get a tradition?)
Call it the Emerald Isle, Ould Sod, or Éire, Ireland is still Ireland by any other name. To ward off evil spirits, families throughout Ireland ensure a healthy and prosperous new year by banging loaves of Christmas bread against the walls and doors throughout the home. (This would never work here. Who has bread—or any food—left over a week after Christmas?)
South of the border, down Mexico way, right before New Year’s, families gather to make the most traditional of Mexican foods—the beloved tamale. They stuff them with meat, cheese, and veggies, then wrap them in husks before handing them out to loved ones on New Year’s Eve.
In the winter, while many of us thin-blooded folk gather indoors, preferably around a friendly fire, in Canada the New Year is celebrated by going ice-fishing. Brrr! It is common for families to rent heated huts and cooking equipment so they can enjoy their feast on the spot.
Clearly, the Colombians aren’t taking any chances. They appear to have the most New Year’s traditions. On New Year’s Eve in Colombia, tradition dictates that under each family member’s bed three potatoes are to be placed: one peeled, one not, and the last one only partially. With eyes closed, at midnight everyone reaches under his/her bed and grabs one potato. Depending on which you select, you can expect a year of good fortune, financial struggle, or a mix of both. (Sure hope they remember to dispose of those potatoes that are left behind.) But the Colombians don’t stop with potato-grabbing. A new—important that they’re brand new—pair of yellow underwear is to be donned on New Year’s Day; pockets are to be stuffed with lentils, guaranteeing a prosperous new year; and again seeking abundance, the New Year’s dinner table is decorated with 12 shafts of wheat. And it’s also common to spot a Colombian local carrying a suitcase with them as they run errands on December 31. This is thought to promise a year full of travel and adventures.
Haiti takes the prize for loveliest New Year’s tradition. Pumpkin soup, soup joumou, was a delicacy in Haitian culture, one which the enslaved Black people were not allowed to have. (Hard to wrap your head around this, right?) So on New Year’s, Haitians go to each other’s homes, bring some of their own soup, and swap for some of the others’. Everyone makes it with a personal touch, so no two are alike.
In the Philippines, families on New Year’s Eve make sure to serve 12 round fruits, like apples, grapes, and plums. These are meant to represent prosperity due to their shape, which mirrors coins. As for the number 12, each fruit represents one month of the year.
There’s nothing like building something up, only to tear—or burn—it down. That’s what happens in parts of India. Prior to New Year’s Eve, a sculpture of an old man is made, then at the stroke of midnight it is set ablaze. The old man effigy symbolizes the passing of grievances from the old year, and the burning, making space for a new year to be born.
We’ve all heard that hanging garlic on the door keeps the vampires away. But in Greece onions are given that special task each year. After church service on New Year’s Day, an onion, which symbolizes fertility and growth, thanks to its ability to sprout on its own, is hung on an outside door. (Guess we retirees won’t be hanging a lot of onions on our doors.)
And finally but certainly not least, we come to Kransekake. Kransekake, as you surely know, is a traditional ringed cake, often made with at least 18 layers, and is eaten both in Denmark and Norway on New Year’s Eve. The sugary layers, which look like cookies, are held together with a tasty royal icing.
That’s a glimpse into the New Year’s celebrations observed by millions around the world. It did not go unnoticed that the majority of the traditions involved food in one form or another. It is only natural that we bring food, an essential ingredient in all life, into our most important celebrations. Not only does it nourish us, replenish and strengthen us, food also delights us. So at the stroke of midnight—if you’re still awake—lift a glass of your favorite bubbly, nibble on your favorite tidbit, and with an eye to the future, celebrate the birth of a brand new . . . is it a boy? a girl? No, it’s a year. 2023! And it took many of us a long, long time to get here. Enjoy. Celebrate.
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