By Paige A. Newman
Many people in the United States associate New Year’s Eve with watching an 11,875 pound Waterford crystal ball on TV as it drops during a live countdown to midnight in New York’s Times Square. The next morning, they awaken from champagne-induced hangovers, again turning on the TV for the Pasadena Rose Parade full of showy floral floats.
In other parts of the world, however, everything from giving out red envelopes to jumping over bonfires can represent the coming of a new year, and events do not all fall on December 31. Many festivities revolve around parades, gatherings of friends and family, and religious ceremonies. A natural regeneration takes place as people of many cultures reflect on the past and set goals for the future, manifesting good fortune through various symbolic charms.
One of the most well-known celebrations is the Chinese New Year, traditionally beginning on the first day of the first lunar month in the Chinese calendar and ending on the 15th for the Lantern Festival. Observed as a public holiday in a number of countries with a large Chinese population, the merriment includes visits to friends and family, and dances in which a skilled team brings to life a long dragon-shaped body on poles. Since red is believed to scare away bad fortune, red clothing and decorations are featured, and red envelopes typically containing monetary gifts are passed out in symbolizing good luck.
In addition, red is used in Mexican traditions when those seeking love don underwear of that color. Mexicans superstitiously eat 12 grapes as the clock strikes midnight, making a wish for the coming year with each grape consumed. Those who dream of travel take a stroll around the block with their luggage.
Ecuador has a very unique ritual on December 31, celebrating New Year’s Eve with the burning of años viejos (“old years”) dummies made from old clothes sewn together and stuffed with firecrackers and sawdust (or any other flammable material). Portraying caricatures of politicians or other newsmakers, the dummies are burned at midnight, representing the release of trouble caused by those people in the past year. Individuals of all ages also wear costumes, especially men who dress as the widows of the años viejos, asking for money in exchange for a dance.
In other parts of South America such as Brazil, there is a belief that jumping over seven ocean waves will grant one’s wishes. Colorful underwear again comes into play with Venezuelans, who wear yellow garments for good luck and also write a letter of wishes, which they burn with hopes that their wishes will come true.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is celebrated in September. It begins the ten days of repentance which ends with Yom Kippur, traditionally a 25-hour period of prayer and fasting. On Rosh Hashanah, the blowing of the trumpet made from a shofar, or ram’s horn, is intended to awaken the listener from slumber on the day of rest and alert him or her to the coming judgment. People dine on apples dipped in honey to symbolize a sweet New Year and challah bread baked in a round shape to represent the yearly cycle.
Nowruz, which has many spellings, marks the first day of spring and the beginning of the Iranian year. It is usually celebrated in March by many countries that were territories of, or influenced by, the Persian Empire. They prepare for the New Year by giving their homes a spring cleaning.
Chahârshanbe Sûrî, the night before the last Wednesday of the year, the Iranian community gathers and jumps over small bonfires while singing the traditional purification song about exchanging evil, sickness and problems for the warmth and vibrancy of the fire. Earthen jars, which symbolically hold someone’s bad fortune, are shattered. Some people make a knot in the corner of a handkerchief or garment, asking the first passerby to unravel it, thereby doing away with one’s misfortune.
Haft S?n is another Nowruz custom of serving seven foods with symbolic meaning, each starting with the Persian alphabet equivalent of the letter “s.”
In Sudan, people attend church until midnight on December 31, praying for their wishes to come true. The next day, they pray until the afternoon, and then gather for dancing and cooking. The community gets into the spirit of sharing by giving food, money or clothes to poor people. Groups of children, sometimes accompanied by schoolteachers, collect candies, cakes and other sweets from their neighbors—not unlike the North American Halloween.
Whether we live in Kansas or Kuwait, and no matter how we choose to celebrate the new year, we all share the same instinct towards regeneration. As we leave the past behind, we hope for the betterment of our lives in the year ahead.
Paige A. Newman is a writer charmed by the colorful cultures of the world.
This article was originally printed in Vision Magazine.