As New Year’s Day dawns in the United Kingdom, people across the world have either greeted the start of 2013 or, across the Atlantic, are still waiting to celebrate. Celebrating the start of a new year is a common and ancient custom, even if mankind cannot entirely agree when the New Year starts and how to welcome it. This post looks at some of the more interesting traditions and superstitions surrounding the New Year.
For many people around the world, New Year’s Eve is a time for parties, drinking, fireworks and an expectant countdown of a clock ticking the seconds to midnight. As Sydney Harbour Bridge erupts in a dazzling rainbow of light, the chimes of Big Ben reverberate around Westminster and the ball drops in Times Square, millions if not billions of revellers will wish each other a happy new year, kiss someone close and maybe make resolutions to make their 2013 a better year. Fortunately for this blog, there are plenty of quirky traditions and superstitions that make New Year’s Eve a vaguely interesting celebration.
My absolute favourite tradition is a comparatively recent development. In Germany and Austria, several television stations broadcast a short comedy play. So far, so normal – many countries have TV shows that mark the New Year (Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in the USA and Jools Holland’s Annual Hootenanny in the UK, for example). What makes this broadcast so special and curious is that it is a black and white British comedy sketch recorded and played in English. Dinner for One (or the 90th birthday) was written for the theatre in the 1920s, and filmed for a German audience by NDR in 1963 .
The story, of an ancient and lonely mistress hosting a dinner party at which an increasingly inebriated butler plays the parts of all the long-deceased guests, is well known across the German-speaking world. It is, however, almost entirely unknown in Britain, where the catchphrase, famous in Germany, would be meaningless:
“James: The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?
Miss Sophie: The same procedure as every year, James!”
In Belgium, wishes for a happy new year are not confined to humans – farmers will wish their animals a good new year as a way of ensuring fertility and health. In Turkey, Santa Claus is associated with New Year’s Eve instead of Christmas.
If you are looking to start a post-Christmas diet, Estonia is not the best place to spend 31 December. There is a popular belief that you should eat seven, nine, or twelve times on New Year’s Eve as these numbers are considered lucky in Estonia. The folk belief holds that that for each meal consumed, the person gains the strength of that many men the following year. But perhaps there is some room for restraint – the meals should not be completely finished as some food should be left for ancestors and spirits who visit the house on New Year’s Eve.
Visitors to Italy can rest assured that a particular ancient tradition is no longer observed. Italians would dispose of old or unused items by dropping them from the window. In an age of widescreen televisions and heavy white goods, such a method of defenestrated waste disposal could have disastrous effects on the streets below.
Highly symbolic times of the year such as New Year come laden with superstitions. Here is a collection of some of my favourites:
- In Russia, if the first visitor to a house on 1 January is a man, the year will be lucky. This is especially the case if he is unexpected – a tradition that is hard to square with the unannounced visits of the NKVD or KGB.
- In Scotland, visitors should arrive with a lump of coal and, preferably, a bottle of whisky. Welsh tradition also encourages gifts – on New Year’s Day presents of money, bread and cheese will ensure wealth and prosperity in the New Year.
- Across Spain and much of the Spanish speaking world, people will gather to eat 12 grapes to celebrate the New Year, each representing a month in the year ahead and each eaten on the chime.
- A common superstition is that nothing should leave the home on New Year’s Day. This includes rubbish, presents and any other common reasons for moving objects from the house. Superstitious householders should prepare for this by taking out the rubbish before New Year’s Day and leaving any gifts to be taken on 1 January in the car or at the destination in advance.