Unexpected New Year Traditions from Around the World
New Year’s Eve traditions that don’t translate (yet)
For a large part of the world, December 31st is the day we unwrap a shiny new package of 365 days.
Unlike the words that don’t translate, a lot of traditions have crossed borders over the last few years, thanks to travelers and Hollywood and Netflix series. It’s funny how some imported traditions have taken root, to the point many forget we didn’t always do this.
Take for instance wearing white for New Year’s Eve. This was not an Argentinean tradition when I was growing up. People dressed up, but they dressed up in as many colors as they liked. Now you can walk in any neighborhood with shops and see the mannequins decked in all-white dresses, crop tops, and suits. It got me thinking about other NYE traditions that travel and the ones that don’t.
Here are some of the ones I came across.
What you wear on New Year’s Eve
The first time I heard “on New Year’s we wear white” was from a Brazilian classmate. Indeed, a little research revealed that for New Year or Ano Novo, all Brazilians wear white and have done so for years. Apparently, the all-white clothing tradition goes back to African religions and arose in Brazil from the Candomblé religion. In theory, wearing white invites peace and happiness. I don’t know exactly when we incorporated it in Argentina but it’s definitely gained more popularity over the last few years.
Pink (and other color) underwear
One of the traditions I do remember growing up was wearing brand-new pink underwear on New Year’s Eve. It was usually received as a gift on Christmas but had to be used for the first time on New Year’s Eve. There are different versions of where this came from. Some say it was given to single women to attract love (I had never heard of this before); other articles said it was to ward against bad luck (which is strange ‘cos the color associated with that is usually red). In any case, I can testify that around December, the price of pink underwear does climb.
While looking into this, I ran into a few articles that rather than explaining the pink underwear tradition, listed the meanings behind each underwear color. It seems we are the only ones that exclusively think pink. While there were some discrepancies, it was generally agreed that you wear: red for passion, white for peace, yellow for money, green for health or adventure, purple for inspiration, black for control, orange for professional success, and blue for friendship or mental health.
Sad to say I didn’t find where the lingerie rainbow of New Year intentions came from or why only the pink ones made it to Argentina; but it seems that, like The Beatles, we believe love is all you need.
What you say on New Year’s Eve
While most of us in the western world tend to use the local (literal) translation of “New Year’s Eve”, a few other names did surface in my search for fun traditions.
In Mexico, December 31st is called Nochevieja: old night.
In some countries like Germany and France, it’s apparently common to call New Year’s “Silvester” and “Saint Sylvestre” respectively. This is in reference to Pope Sylvester I. I recently learned that he became a saint posthumously, with his feast day being the day he died: December 31. When the Gregorian calendar was introduced, this date coincided with New Year’s Eve.
In France, you may also see it as “Le Réveillon du Nouvel An”. My very rudimentary French suggested reveillon meant awakening, and Wikipedia confirmed it: Reveillon is a long dinner held in the evening preceding Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. Its name descends from the word réveil (meaning “waking”) because participation involves staying awake until morning, as the meal finishes. Despite how hard it is to pronounce french words (or is that just me?) other countries seem to have adopted this term too.
What you eat on New Year’s Eve
I believe this one originated in Spain, but unsurprisingly it is present in many Hispanic countries in South America. When the countdown to midnight begins, you must eat 12 grapes. These represent the 12 months of the year, and you make 12 wishes as you chew. If you manage to eat the 12 grapes in the limited time it takes to finish the countdown, your 12 wishes will come true!
In Brazil, they eat them, and in Mexico, they leave a bag of lentils outside the house, but in both countries (and maybe more?) they’re associated with good fortune.
Apparently, in Estonia, they strive to eat a lucky number of meals on New Year’s Eve, where 7, 9, and 12 are considered the most auspicious numbers. I cannot imagine eating twelve meals in one day, even if one is meant to leave a portion for visiting ancestors’ spirits.
Not Ice Cream
This may be the strangest food-related one I found, apparently, in Switzerland, it’s good luck to drop ice cream on the floor on New Year’s.
In Brazil, they believe it’s bad luck to eat poultry as eating the meat of animals that walk backward is said to bring regression in life.
What you do on New Year’s Eve
Watching fireworks and toasting champagne, kissing your loved ones, and going to parties all seem to be pretty international ways of celebrating. After reading a lot of articles, I have discovered one point that nobody agrees on: to clean or not to clean.
In some countries sweeping the house (and swiping outwards towards the door) is considered good luck, as it’s believed to be a way of driving away the negative experiences from the previous year. In others, they fear you would be sweeping away your good luck and so prefer to let the dust settle till after January first. Similarly, in Germany, doing laundry between Christmas and New Year’s is considered bad luck. It is believed that if you do, somebody close to you could die, so very bad luck indeed.
The most surprising New Year’s Eve tradition I read about? The award goes to… drumroll… the Danes! From the creators of Hygge and Lykke and all things soft and cozy, comes “Smash those dishes”. It seems that they save old, broken, or scratched dishes throughout the year, and on NYE they throw these at the doors of their friends’ and families’ houses. The more broken dishes you find outside your house the next morning, the more luck you’ll have that year.
Same, same but different/ Why do we do this/ all traditions are different, but really they are all the same
While the way we go about it may differ, all these rituals have one thing in common. Faced with 365 days of possibility, but also uncertainty, we tap into these traditions that give us some semblance of control. If we do this, it’ll be a good year. We sweep, dance, jump, drop ice cream, smash dishes, burn papers with our intentions, put coins in our shoes, and walk around the block with an empty suitcase so that this new year will bring about love, money, good health, adventure, and all of our hearts desires.
Every new tradition I read about, eyes wide and mouth hanging open in disbelief made the rest of the world seem stranger, and then less so.
This list is by no means exhaustive. I merely pulled at the threads of the traditions I have personally come across. If I got any of them wrong or without necessary disclaimers, please let me know in the comments. Also, I would love to hear of any I have yet to discover!