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December 21, 2004 > New Year's Day Celebrations Around the World

New Year's Day Celebrations Around the World

by Praveena Raman

Historically New Year's Day celebrations are the oldest of all holidays. Traditions vary from country to country around the world with people even celebrating the New Year at different times of the year because people in different parts of the world use different calendars. Some calendars are based on the movement of the moon and others are based on the position of the sun, while others are based on both the sun and the moon. All over the world there are special beliefs about the New Year. Some cultures celebrate the New Year in the fall, others in winter or spring.

In 2000 BC ancient Babylonians observed the New Year with the first new moon after the vernal equinox. Their celebrations lasted for 11 days. The Romans, Hindus and Muslims traditionally celebrated the New Year in the spring, which is a logical time to start a New Year as it is the season of rebirth, of planting new crops and of blossoming. The Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Jews began their New Year with the fall equinox, and the Greeks celebrated it on the winter solstice. With the creation of the Julian calendar by Julius Caesar, January 1st became recognized as New Year's Day worldwide even though it does not have astronomical or agricultural significance.

Many of the modern traditions of the western world like making resolutions dates back to the early Babylonians. Popular modern resolutions might include the promise to lose weight or quit smoking. The early Babylonian's most popular resolution was to return borrowed farm equipment.

Below is a sampling of New Year's traditions from various countries.
U.S.: The American tradition of the Tournament of Roses Parade dates back to 1886. In that year, members of the Valley Hunt Club decorated their carriages with flowers. It celebrated the ripening of the orange crop in California. Although the Rose Bowl football game was first played as a part of the Tournament of Roses in 1902, it was replaced by Roman chariot races the following year. In 1916, the football game returned as the sports centerpiece of the festival. The tradition of using a baby to signify the New Year actually began in Greece around 600 BC. The use of an image of a baby with a New Year's banner as a symbolic representation of the New Year was brought to early America by the Germans, who had used the effigy since the 14th century. Many states around U.S. have their own traditions. For example, in Philadelphia there is the Mummer's parade, dating back to 1840. Marchers brave the cold to display bizarre costumes. On a smaller scale, the Illinois town of Fort de Chartres carries on an old French tradition where revelers put on cornhusk costumes and go door-to-door to sing old French tunes. In parts of the South, it's traditional to eat hog jowl and black-eyed peas on New Year's Day in order to bring good fortune. The Pennsylvania Dutch eat sauerkraut to get rich. In Illinois, you're told that what you do the first hour of the New Year will be what you do most of the year. In Tennessee, it is said that if you wash your clothes on New Year's Day, you'll wash someone out of your family. Hawaiians traditionally do not sweep the house on New Year's Day. Other traditions to bring luck for the coming year include holding money and eating something at the stroke of midnight or banging pots and pans to make enough noise to scare off "evil spirits." It is also traditional to hold dances and parties and ring in New Year's Day together in huge celebrations.
India: The Hindus celebrate the New Year at different times of the year. Most Hindus celebrate between March and April. However the Hindus in Gujarat celebrate their New Year during Diwali (especially true for business men). The Muslims celebrate Muharram in May. The Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanna in the fall while the Parsis celebrate Naw-Ruz on March 21st. The Sikhs celebrate Vaisakhi in April and everybody joins the Christians and the rest of the world in celebrating January 1st also as the New Year's Day.

Iran: In a pre-Islam tradition, Iranians celebrate the pastoral New Year or Nawrus festival beginning around March 21. As part of this tradition, Iranian tables are set with seven foods beginning with the letter S.

China: The New Year is celebrated some time between January 17 and February 19, at the time of the new moon, and it is called Yuan Tan. It is celebrated by Chinese people all over the world and street processions are an exciting part. In the Festival of Lanterns, thousands of lanterns are used to light the way for the New Year. Celebrants prepare special foods, clean house, settle debts and buy new clothes. On New Year's Eve, a feast is served, little red packets of money are given out, fireworks explode and doors are thrown open to welcome in good luck. Similar festivities are celebrated as Je-sok in Korea, Tet in Vietnam and Sang-Sin in Taiwan.

Japan: New Year's Day is celebrated on January 1. To keep out evil spirits, they hang a rope of straw across the front of their houses which stands for happiness and good luck. On New Year's Eve, families go to the Buddhist temples to ring the temple bell 108 times. The number 108 has special significance in the Buddhist faith; it is believed that ringing the bell this many times wards off evil spirits and begins the New Year fresh.

Thailand: Songkran is celebrated in April where people playfully drench each other with water.

Nigeria: the Igbo people bring in the New Year in March, with children rushing behind locked doors to avoid being carried away by the old year.

Europe and South America:
In Scotland New Year's Eve is called Hogmanay after an oat cake traditionally given to children on that day. The tradition known as "First Footing" is a Scottish one. The first person to enter a home on New Year's Day is thought to profoundly affect the family for the rest of the year. It is considered good luck if a stranger is the first to set foot in the residence. In England, there is a similar New Year's Day tradition to the Scottish "First Footing." It is considered good luck for the rest of the year if a stranger carrying a lump of coal is the first to enter one's home on New Year's Day. In Romania, young men go around the countryside banging drums, ringing cow bells and cracking whips, while in Mexico, people fire rifles into the air. In Spain, Spaniards rush to devour 12 grapes at the start of the New Year, popping one with each chime of the clock. In Brazil (Rio), New Year's Eve is a wonderful celebration with homage paid to the ancient ocean god. People dress in white out of respect to this god, walk the beach and watch the lovely macumbas ritual where offerings are made to the ocean god. People light candles on the beach and offer prayers of thanksgiving to the ocean god. At the stroke of midnight, a huge fireworks display is given while classical music played over loud speakers to calm and soothe the loud crowds. Peruvians wear yellow underwear on New Year's Day for good luck and they swallow grapes whole while sitting underneath a table. In Italy, Neapolitans toss pots and dishes out of their windows to bring good luck. In Denmark, Danes leap off chairs at the stroke of midnight so they can "jump" into the New Year. Icelanders bring in New Year's Day with elf dances on the belief that elves are out and about and might want to stop and rest on their way. In some parts of Switzerland and Austria, people dress up in fantastic costumes to celebrate Saint Sylvester's Eve. In Greece, New Year's Day is also the Festival of Saint Basil. Children leave their shoes by the fire on New Year's Day with the hope that he will come and fill their shoes with gifts. The Greeks bake Vasilopita bread that has a gold coin inside. Norwegians have a traditional lutefisk meal including mashed green peas, bacon, mustard, boiled potatoes and lutefisk, which is a dried cod fish treated with caustic soda. In Armenia, families take turns having feasts around their hearth as neighbors lower baskets of presents down the chimney.

Throughout the world people set aside New Year's Eve for parties and celebrate with a toast at midnight to ring New Year's Day and a new beginning.

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