The ancients spun off several traditions for modern-day traditions that ring in the New Year. Here are a few to ponder:
Make Some Noise
From fireworks to church bells, noisy revelry seems to be a favorite around the world. In ancient Thailand, guns were fired to frighten off demons. In China, firecrackers routed the forces of darkness. In the early American colonies, the sound of pistol shots rang through the air. Today, Italians let their church bells peal, the Swiss beat drums, and the North Americans sound sirens and party horns to bid the old year farewell.
Eat Lucky Food
Many New Year’s traditions are seated in culinary arts. The tradition of eating 12 grapes at midnight comes from Spain. Revelers stuff their mouths with 12 grapes in the final moments of the year—one grape for every chime of the clock! In the southern US, black-eyed peas and pork foretell good fortune. In Scotland—where Hogmanay is celebrated—people parade down the streets swinging balls of fire. In Dutch homes, fritters called olie bollen are served. Eating any ring-shaped treat (such as a doughnut) symbolizes “coming full circle” and leads to good fortune. The Irish enjoy pastries called bannocks. In India and Pakistan, rice promises prosperity. Apples dipped in honey are a Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) tradition. In Swiss homes, dollops of whipped cream, symbolizing the richness of the year to come, are dropped on the floors and allowed to remain there!
Have a Drink
Although the pop of champagne cork ushers in the new year for most, other countries have their own beverage-based traditions. Wassail, a punch-like drink named after the Gaelic term for “good health,” is served in some parts of England. Spiced “hot pint” is the Scottish version of Wassail. Traditionally, the Scots drank to each other’s prosperity and also offered this warm drink to neighbors along with a small gift. In Holland, toasts are made with hot, spiced wine.
Give a Gift
Historically, the new year was once the time to swap presents. Gifts of gilded nuts or coins marked the start of the new year in Rome. Eggs, the symbol of fertility, were exchanged by the Persians. Early Egyptians traded earthenware flasks. In Scotland, coal, shortbread and silverware were traditionally exchanged for good luck.
Put Your Best Foot Forward
In Scotland, the custom of first-footing is an important part of the celebration of Hogmanay, or New Year’s Eve day. After midnight, family and friends visit each other’s home. The “first foot” to cross a threshold after midnight will predict the next year’s fortune. Although the tradition varies, those deemed especially fortunate as “first footers” are new brides, new mothers, those who are tall and dark, or anyone born on January 1.
Turn Over a New Leaf
The dawn of a new year marks a time for retrospection. Jews who observe Rosh Hashanah make time for personal reflection, prayer and a visit to gravesites. Christian churches hold “watch-night” services, a custom that began in 1770 at Old St. Georges Methodist Church in Philadelphia. The practice of making New Year’s resolutions, said to have begun with the Babylonians as early as 2600 B.C., is another way to reflect on the past and plan for the future.
New Year’s Folklore
Here are a age-old sayings and proverbs passed down for generations:
- On New Year’s Eve, kiss the person you hope to keep kissing.
- If New Year’s Eve night wind blow south, It betokeneth warmth and growth.
- For abundance in the new year, fill your pockets and cupboards today.
- If the old year goes out like a lion, the new year will come in like a lamb.
- Begin the new year square with every man. [i.e., pay your debts!] –Robert B. Thomas, founder of The Old Farmer’s Almanac
So, whether you chose to pay your debts to the rulers or Gods, return borrowed farm equipment (as did the Babylonians), or plan to drop a few pounds, you are unwittingly evoking an ancient and powerful yearning for a fresh start… Good luck!
Reference material taken in part from the following sources: The Old Farmer’s Almanac, original article prior to edits by Victoria Doudera