It’s almost a new year, which means, for Americans, “Auld Lang Syne” (a Scottish song, by the way) and champagne toasts at midnight. In fact, most cultures seem to celebrate along the same lines. They embrace the idea of out with the old and in with the new. People welcome good luck. And everybody eats and makes merry until after midnight. The difference is all really in the details.
1. The Netherlands
In the Netherlands, as well as other parts of Europe, the oliebol, or ollie bollen, is eaten on New Year’s Eve. Yep, some yummy “oil balls”! Don’t let the literal translation fool you. It goes by different names in different countries, but the result is the same: fried dough, as in doughnut. Sounds like a tasty way to ring in the New Year. (Here’s a 15-minute ollie bollen recipe if you want to give it a try.) But not only that, legend has it that making an offering of the bits of fried dough helped to appease evil spirits that haunted the mid-winter nights.
2. South Africa
In South Africa, the Cape Minstrels perform in Cape Town on January 2 for Second New Year (Tweede Nuwe Jaar). Second New Year commemorates the one day off per year that slaves in South Africa were released from their work. They would dress as minstrels, play banjos and drums and other instruments, and parade through the streets with parasols and dressed in colorful suits and costumes. Today, that tradition continues with over 70 troupes of musicians, more than 13,000 people, celebrating and sweeping up with their festivities the resilient spirit of native South Africans who survived not only slavery but also apartheid.
In Japan, it’s a time for putting the old year to rest and ringing in — literally, or better yet, audibly — the new year. Based on Shinto religious traditions, temple bells are rung 108 times at midnight on December 31. Each peal, perhaps, is sounded to fend off the 108 earthly desires that are to be avoided, according to Buddhist teachings. Once the old year is passed, Japanese traditions focus on the firsts of the next year: the first sunrise, for example, and the first temple visit.
In Russia, New Year’s celebrations aren’t limited to a single night, but can encompass two weeks. They celebrate New New Year, which is January 1, the beginning of the new year according to the Gregorian calendar we also use in America, as do many countries around the world. But on January 7, they will celebrate the Christmastime traditions, based on the calendar still in use by the Russian Orthodox Church, the Julian calendar. That’s when the Russian version of Santa, Ded Moroz, or Father Frost, brings gifts to children. On January 14, they celebrate Old New Year, as observed according to the old Julian calendar.
In Italy, nothing says “Happy New Year” like red underpants. Red underwear is a staple of the New Year’s tradition in Italy. The color choice invokes centuries-old superstition that the color keeps bad luck and evil at bay, and encourages good luck. Now, even if you find yourself in Rome without a pair of rosy unmentionables, no worries. Shops and street vendors have plenty for sale. In Spain and some Latin American countries, you’ll also find that people are donning red underthings in the name of starting the new year off right.
In Iceland, specifically in Reykjavik, it’s not really New Year’s Eve without the bonfires. These public blazes might be part of an old tradition of burning old things to clean house and make room for the new year’s bounty. Or maybe it’s just cold and the people of Iceland like a toasty fire before heading back inside to watch Áramótaskaupið, a satirical comedy show which sends up the news and highlights of the last year. When that’s done, it’s back outside to see the fireworks.
In Brazil, seven is the number of the day on New Year’s Eve. People dressed in white (considered a lucky color) might jump over seven ocean waves at the beach. Or they’ll eat seven grapes for luck and seven pomegranate seeds for wealth. But if you can’t get lucky chasing seven, you can always float gifts to Yemanjá, an African-Brazilian water goddess (who is also recognized in various other African, South American, and island cultures). In Brazil at Copacabana beach, they send out white flowers, candles, and other offerings. If your gift comes back, it’s safe to assume Yemanjá will not bestow her favor on you in the coming year.
Whether you’re in Japan or Iceland, Italy or at home in America, watching the ball drop in New York’s Times Square, the New Year’s Eve tradition is about letting go of the past year’s cares and worries and making room for the best of what the next 12 months have to offer.
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