New Year's Traditions

By: Julie Tew Email
By: Julie Tew Email
Having come from the south, my family's New Year's celebration revolved around family and food. My grandmother always cooked black-eyed peas with ham and greens in the form of either cabbage, mustard, or turnip greens. The peas were a symbol of luck, the ham a symbol of wealth, and the greens also a symbol of money. All were supposed to make a good start for the new year.

My grandfather had his own tradition to ensure a productive year on the farm. He would place a dime out on the porch the evening before. If he got up early enough to retrieve the dime on New Year's Day before the dew had dried, it meant he would have no problem waking early throughout the rest of the year in order to get started on the farm work.

Other American Traditions:

New York is the top destination for many Americans celebrating the new year. In the past 100 years the "ball dropping" on top of One Times Square in New York City, broadcast to all of America (and rebroadcast in many other countries), is a major component of the New Year celebration. The 1,070-pound, 6-foot-diameter Waterford crystal ball located high above Times Square is lowered, starting at 11:59 p.m. and reaching the bottom of its tower 60 seconds later, at the stroke of midnight (12:00 a.m.). This is repeated for all four time zones in the continental US.

New Year's Eve is a major event in Las Vegas, Nevada, where the Las Vegas Strip is shut down as several hundred thousand people party. New Year's Eve is traditionally the busiest day of the year at Walt Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California, where the parks stay open late and the usual nightly fireworks are supplemented by an additional New-Year's-Eve-specific show at midnight. In New Orleans, Louisiana, another of the most popular New Year celebration venues in North America, similar crowds of hundreds of thousands gather in the French Quarter, particularly on Bourbon and Canal Street, to celebrate the New Year.

Many cities also celebrate First Night, a non-alcohol family-friendly New Year's Celebration, generally featuring performing artists, community events, parades, and fireworks displays. First Night began in Boston in 1976 and is now found in over 60 cities nationwide. A similar celebration is Providence, Rhode Island's Bright Night Providence,and an artist run arts celebration that started when Providence's First Night went bankrupt in 2003.

The song "Auld Lang Syne" has become a popular song to sing at midnight on New Year's Eve.

Fireworks and other forms of noise making is a big part of the celebration, too. In several areas of the U.S., particularly major urban areas, New Year celebrations are punctuated by random celebratory gunfire which could potentially cause injuries and deaths. Police departments in many cities, aided by gun safety organizations, have attempted to crack down on this practice through technology and stiffer penalties.

New Year's Day traditions include making New Year's resolutions, watching the Tournament of Roses Parade and later the Rose Bowl football game, and reviewing the past year, including topics such as politics, natural disasters, music and the arts, as well as noting significant individuals who died.

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Other cultures celebrate the new year in different ways.

African-American: While New Year’s Day falls within the contemporary celebration of Kwaanza, it is also referred to as Emancipation Day or Jubilee Day. On New Year’s Day in 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation announcing the abolition of slavery, was read in Boston. Today, “watch services” are still held in many African-American churches in observance of that day. Among the foods associated with the New Year, some African customs have become traditional like the serving of ham hocks, black-eyed peas, collard greens and macaroni and cheese. Benné wafers (sesame and cheese “coins”), which represent money, are also popular as symbols of future prosperity.

China: The Chinese continue to observe the lunar New Year, which is based on the old Chinese lunar calendar, so it may occur at any point between January 1 and February 19. The celebration can last anywhere from 10 days to one month. The tradition of setting off firecrackers and playing drums and cymbals during the celebration is believed to drive away evil spirits. Gifts of money, in red envelopes, are also exchanged.

Denmark: In most Scandinavian countries, the peak of the winter holidays is Christmas, although the New Year is celebrated. Among the traditional Danish dishes served is kale, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, and served in a white sauce.

Greece: The Greeks celebrate the beginning of the New Year by sharing a traditional sweet bread into which a coin has been baked. The bread is sliced at midnight and whoever gets the coin is believed to have good luck for the year.

Ireland: The Celtic New Year was traditionally November 1 – the first day of winter. The wealthiest villager generally slaughtered and roasted a pig (or some animal), inviting all of the villagers to a celebration. Children were also given oranges on New Year’s Day as a special treat.

Italy: Italian customs vary by region, but in certain areas eating lentils, often in combination with sausage (zampone), is believed to bring good fortune all year. In other areas, a sweet bread or cake like a panetonne or a torciglione is sliced and served to all as a symbol of hope and prosperity. The culmination of the Christmas celebration is actually held on January 6. The night before, children leave their shoes outside and an old woman – Befana­ – delivers presents. On that day, a torta della Befana, a cake in which a large bean is hidden, is served. The one who gets the bean has good fortune for the year.

Japan: New Year’s Eve is observed by thorough house cleaning, to rid the house of evil spirits before the New Year begins. Bamboo sticks – symbols of growth and prosperity – are hung on the front door. At midnight, chimes ring 108 times at which point children are given their New Year’s money for good behavior during the year. The real celebration does not begin until sunrise when the traditional meal of vegetables, seafood and dessert is served in one dish – the different types of food symbolizing prosperity. The day after New Year’s is First Writing Day, when kakizome or the practice of writing down ones’ hopes for the year is observed.

Mexico: In Mexico, the Christmas celebration of posadas culminates on January 6 in the Fiesta de los Reyes. On that day, the King’s Cake (rosca de reyes) is served. The cake is formed into a ring to symbolize a crown, and a doll is hidden in the dough. The one who finds the doll becomes the king for the day and must select a queen. The “royal” couple then must host a party on Candlemas (February 2), when candles are lit for purification of the Virgin Mary.

Poland: The Poles celebrate the New Year much as we do in the U.S., with much celebration on New Year’s Eve. New Year’s Day festivities might include a hayride into the forest where a bonfire is set and sausages and bigos are served (with a little bit of the hair of the dog).

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year: The Jewish New Year is celebrated either at the new moon closest to the beginning of the barley harvest (Passover) or the “ingathering” of the fruits (Sukoth), presumably depending upon the area of the world in which you live. Delicacies, like honey, raisins, apples and carrots, are served to represent optimism for a sweet future. No bitter or sour foods can be served. Other traditional foods include sweet potatoes and Challah bread. The Sephardim often serve almond macaroons.

Scotland: Hogmanay is the celebration of the New Year, and it is of far greater importance than Christmas. Once upon a time, the Scots exchanged gifts on Hogmanay, rather than at Christmas. Among the customs, which vary by region, are the firing of guns at midnight on New Year’s Eve, followed by the men of the village going house to house for the “first footing,” when they were offered a bannock (oat cake) and whiskey. A stranger carrying a lump of coal was good luck. Another tradition, apparently no longer observed, is the “Creaming of the Well.” The young woman who drew the first water from the local well on New Year’s Day would be married that year, while if she could get the object of her affection to drink the water before sunset, he would become her husband by year’s end.

Three Kings Day: The Feast of the Epiphany (January 6 or Twelfth Night) is celebrated in most Spanish-speaking countries, including Spain, Latin America and the Caribbean. Children leave out hay for the Kings’ camels the night before and awake to find presents left in its stead. A rosca de reyes or King’s Cake (see Mexico, above) is served in many countries. In other regions, rice pudding is the traditional dessert.

Vietnam: The festival of Tet Nguyen Dan is a seven-day celebration of the lunar New Year and the most important Vietnamese holiday. The first day and the first week of the New Year are believed to set the tone for the year, so houses are cleaned and painted, new clothes are bought and old debts paid. Gifts are exchanged by family members and families visit each other. The first visitor is very important, and it is highly desirable that the first visitor be happy, rich and important, as this will predict the fortune of the household for the year.

Wales: For the Welsh, like the Scots, the New Year’s celebration is a much bigger occasion than Christmas, especially as a feast day. The Welsh New Year actually occurs on January 13 and traditional foods include a roast goose, potato pudding and rice pudding.

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