New Year’s Traditions Around the World: New Orleans Edition

05:00 December 28, 2018
By: Burke Bischoff

New Year’s Eve continues to be a popular holiday for worldwide celebration: the start of another chapter in the world’s history and a time for people to make new promises to themselves and others. With any celebration, there are certain traditions that each one of us performs every New Year. Given that it’s such a global holiday, it’s no surprise that different countries hold different traditions more sacred than others. We’ll be giving the spotlight to the unique New Year’s traditions in countries that have some connection to our own Crescent City.


Considering that France is the country to which New Orleans owes its existence, the French New Year’s Eve tradition, aka “Le Réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre,” shares a lot of similarities with that of the city. As the name implies, many French people have réveillon dinners with friends and family in honor of Saint Sylvestre, the patron saint of the New Year. The dinners typically have foie gras, smoked salmon, oysters, and champagne. Another unique tradition that the French have is instead of kissing under the mistletoe during Christmas, they reserve it for the final stroke of midnight to ring in the new year. There are also plenty of costume and/or club parties that happen throughout France, so that the new year can be welcomed with festive celebration.


Spain left its lasting footprint on the architecture and culture of New Orleans for the nearly four decades it owned Louisiana. There are two main traditions that the Spanish maintain every New Year. One tradition is the 12 lucky grapes: During the 12 strokes of midnight, people will eat one grape, each of which represents one month of the year, per clock chime, thereby ringing in the new year. Another unique Spanish tradition is the act of wearing red underwear so that Cupid can find your true love in the coming year. Other traditions include participating in the Christmas lottery, dropping a gold object into a glass of cava and toasting with it, and taking the first step of the new year with your right foot.  


After the early 1700s, many German immigrants, most of whom arrived during the 1840s and 1850s, were brought over to Louisiana to work on farms and help feed the settlement of New Orleans. New Year’s, or Neujahr, in Germany is celebrated with many different and fascinating traditions. Typically, Germans will have a midnight toast of Sekt, a German sparkling wine, and shout, “Prosit Neujahr.” Much like how A Christmas Story is an integral holiday viewing for Americans, on New Year’s Eve, many Germans love watching the British short film Dinner for One, starring comedians Freddie Frinton and May Warden. One strange tradition is called “bleigiessen,” where people will melt a little bit of lead and then drop it into cold water. The shape the lead takes is supposed to determine what the year ahead will bring. 

New Year’s Traditions Around the World: New Orleans Edition


Fleeing from British persecution near the end of the 1700s, the Irish have been a long-standing staple of New Orleans culture and have influenced many aspects of the city, even to this day. As a country steeped in beliefs and superstitions, Ireland has a multitude of New Year’s traditions to choose from. One simple tradition is cleaning one’s home from top to bottom, symbolizing a fresh start for a good new year. Another is for Irish families to set a place at the dinner table for a family member who passed away and to leave the front door unlatched as a way of remembering them. One unusual tradition involves banging on the doors and walls of the house with Christmas bread, supposedly to chase out bad luck that’s within one’s home and bring in good luck.


New Orleans has had close ties with Honduras since the late 1800s when local firms Standard Fruit Co. and United Fruit Co. started receiving large shipments of bananas from the country. Most of time, Hondurans organize parties to spend time with their closest friends for New Year’s. One very popular tradition is to gather at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Comayagua, which is one of the oldest cathedrals in Central America, and listen to the church bell ring 12 times to usher in the new year. Another fun tradition in Honduras is to create a mannequin, made to symbolize the previous year (or sometimes a local politician), and burn it to welcome change and allow the new year to start.   


While they were not treated well at all for a long time after they started immigrating to New Orleans in the 19th century, the Italians, most of whom came from Sicily, persevered and have left their mark on the city. For New Year’s Eve, Italy is particularly known for the large number of fireworks that people shoot off into the night sky. Italy is also known for its abundant dinners; the New Year’s dinner is no exception and usually contains cotechino (pork sausage) or zampone (stuffed pig’s trotter), as well as lentils. Similar to the Spanish, Italians will also wear red undergarments to bring in good luck. One old—and extreme—tradition from southern Italy entails throwing out old pots, pans, clothes, and furniture from an upstairs window, symbolizing the act of letting go of past sadness and preparing for the future.


After the Vietnam War, a large number of Vietnamese fled to New Orleans in the mid-70s because of the familiar climate and religion here. The Vietnamese New Year, or Tết (which is short for Tết Nguyên Đán), occurs usually in January or February on the same day as the Chinese New Year. There are a ton of traditions associated with Tết. An important aspect of the celebration is family, so many people will return to their homeland to visit relatives and eat food like mâm ngũ quả (assorted fruit trays), bánh chưng (rice cakes), and canh măng (bamboo soup with chicken or pork). It’s also common for elders in each family to give red envelopes with money in them to the children. One of the most important traditions in Tết is how the first person who enters a family’s home determines that family’s fortune for the entire year. So, if the person is kind or successful, then the family will receive blessings for the entire year. 

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