New Year's is a time to get together with friends and family, reflect on the previous year, and welcome the next one with the hope that it's even better than the last. What makes New Year celebration particularly special are the traditions that people practice for it every year. While most in the United States practice basically the same traditions, our traditions are not the only ones. People from all over the world have different New Year customs that stem either from cultural roots or history. To celebrate the coming new year, let's take a look at the New Year's traditions of countries that have either helped shaped New Orleans and Louisiana or left behind well-known communities.
Also known as La Saint-Sylvestre, New Year in France has some of the same traditions that you would probably see in New Orleans. Réveillon dinners, which are dinners that last beyond midnight, will still be going on even through Christmas is past. While at home or partying with friends, the French usually take time out to watch the French president's message to the country as well as the New Year's Day Parade through the Champs-Élysées. You might also see people kissing under mistletoe and exchanging étrennes (gifts).
Out of all of the European countries, Spain might have some of the quirkiest New Year's practices around. Perhaps the most well-known Nochevieja traditions are the 12 lucky grapes. While the bells in the Puerta del Sol clock tower in Madrid toll to midnight, people try to eat 12 grapes before the bells finish ringing. Other unique Spanish traditions include wearing red underwear so Cupid will bring you love, rubbing lottery tickets against a pregnant woman's belly or bald man's head for luck, making a toast with some gold in a glass of Cava, and making sure you take a step with your right foot when the new year arrives.
With a culture full of superstitions, New Year, or Oíche Chinn Bliana, traditions in Ireland usually incorporate a sense of the supernatural. One custom includes banging on the doors and walls of one's home with leftover Christmas bread to chase out evil spirits. After that, Irish families may then clean their homes from top to bottom in order to invite in good spirits and make a fresh start for the new year. There's also a tradition where families will leave a place at the table empty for family members who died and the front door unlocked to show their spirits are always welcomed to return home.
Notte di San Silvestro sees Italy adopting some of the New Year traditions of its neighbors. Fireworks go off in every major city, families gather together for a New Year's dinner featuring zampone or cotechino (which is pig's trotters or entrails), and people wear red underwear to bring in good luck. One specifically Italian custom, usually found in Southern Italy, involves people throwing old items (pots, pans, clothing, furniture, appliances, etc.) out from their upstairs windows in order to let go of past unhappiness and to be ready for the future.
Germans celebrating Neujahr have traditional practices that are mainly unique to them, just like the Spaniards. Some of the more interesting ones include bleigießen (the act of dropping molten lead into cold water and telling someone's fortune based on the shapes it forms) and glücksschwein (marzipan pigs that are eaten for good luck). You can also find many German families sitting down together in front of the TV to watch the short British comedy Dinner for One, which has been broadcast on German televisions every New Year's Eve since 1972.
New Year's Eve in Greece is very interesting in how different and similar it is to what we New Orleanians are used to. Most Greek families celebrate New Year's Eve as Saint Basil's Day after Saint Basil of Caesarea, who is the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Christian equivalent of Saint Nicholas of Myra (aka Santa Claus). During the day, people sing traditional Greek carols called kalanda. When midnight rolls around, a vasilopita (bread or a cake with a coin inside, much like New Orleans' own king cake) is brought out, a sign of the cross is etched on top of it, and slices are left out for either Saint Basil or Jesus.
If you ever find yourself in Croatia during the New Year celebration, you might see most of the following traditions whereever there is a large concentration of the ethnic Bunjevci peoples, typically in Bačka and Lika. The main belief with the Bunjevci is that people's lives will unfold exactly the same as the first day of the year. So homes are kept tidy and quiet on New Year's Day. The only sounds throughout the day should be cracking whips, which is done to ward off spirits. Also, at the start of New Year's Day, family members fill a basin with water, add an apple and a coin to it, and wash their faces. This is supposed to bring people health and prosperity throughout the year.
January 1st is not only New Year's Day in Haiti-it's also when Haitians celebrate their independence from French colonial rule, which was achieved in 1804. As a sign of remembrance, Haitians will fix soup joumou for their families (since it was a food source for both Haitian slaves and French colonials back then). Soup joumou is made from calbaza (or winter squash), plantains, potatoes, beef, and vegetables, which are all puréed with water and mixed with lime, salt, garlic, and other spices. Some families may also add butter or oil as well as macaroni and vermicelli.
Año Nuevo in Honduras has specific traditions that can be found in both the urban and rural areas. While most people have a home party with friends and family, it's customary to travel to Comayagua and gather around the city's cathedral to hear the bell (which is debatably the oldest bell in the Americas) toll to midnight. In the more rural areas, you may see people burning mannequins that are typically dressed like Honduran presidents or community leaders. The thought is that the mannequin represents all of the misfortunes of the past year. By burning it, the previous year is also burnt, and the new year is allowed bring in a clean slate.
Tết Nguyên Đán (simply Tết or Vietnamese Lunar New Year) shares a lot of the same traditions, customs, and even dates as Chinese New Year. Family members from around the world typically go to Vietnam to reunite with relatives. Traditional customs include worshiping ancestors at either family altars or graves, giving children money in red envelopes for good luck, and either participating in or witnessing Mua Lan (or Lion Dancing, which is said to scare off evil spirits). There is also a tradition, called xông đất, that if the first person a family invites into their home during the new year is of good temper and morality, then the family will be blessed with good fortune for the rest of the year.
In the Philippines, Bisperas ng Bagong Taon is not only influenced by local Filipino traditions, but also those from Spain. Most families attend church and then either attend or host a midnight meal called Media Noche, which usually includes lechón (roasted pig) and pancit (noodles). Just like in Spain, you might see people eating 12 grapes at midnight. Other quirky customs include wearing polka dots to attract wealth, blowing on a torotot horn to ward off evil spirits, and jumping as high as you can when clocks strike 12 so that you can grow taller.