The New Year is one of the most important secular celebrations in British culture, a time for reflection on the events of the past year, for affirming the value of friendship and family, and for planning the year to come. Although some New Year customs are common across the world, each culture has its own unique way of celebrating.
At midnight, prepare to welcome the first visitor of the New Year, whose nature will determine your household's fortune therein.
Charles Kightly, "The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore"
New Year's in Britain
Most British families celebrate the New Year in the same way, with parties, firework displays and a loud countdown to midnight. In addition to these modern customs, some older New Year's traditions remain with roots far back in the nation's history.
One of the most common British New Year traditions is the First Foot, found in Scotland and large parts of England, particularly the North but also the southwest. The First Foot custom arises from the belief that the first things a household encounters on New Year's Day are omens of the year to come. A person, usually male, is chosen to be the first to walk through the house's door in the new year. He carries symbolic gifts, the nature of which varies from place to place. They often include alcohol, food and a symbol of fire such as a coal, symbolising the necessities of life. Other possible gifts include money (usually in the form of a single symbolic coin).
Other aspects of the rite vary from place to place. For instance, in parts of Yorkshire a red-haired First Foot is traditionally considered lucky, while in other parts of the country a red-haired visitor is considered very unlucky; the First Foot should be dark-haired. In some regions, the midnight visitor delivers a traditional poem or wishes good luck on the household.
In Scotland, New Year's, or Hogmanay, is one of the most important celebrations of the year, traditionally eclipsing Christmas. Local customs often involve fire in some form, such as the fireball ceremony in Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire. In this exciting and dramatic New Year's rite, revellers swing balls of burning material around their heads on chains at midnight. The burning fireballs are thrown into the sea at the end of the celebration. Although this custom seems like some pagan survival, it actually dates to the 19th century.
Similar practices can be found in northern England. For instance, Allendale in Northumberland is home to a procession of men in costume who carry burning tar barrels on their heads.
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New Year's in Europe
Most European New Year's celebrations follow the general trend of large parties with music, drinking and a countdown to midnight. However, each nation or region has its own traditions. In France, for instance, New Year's is traditionally a time for "le réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre", a long meal with family and friends that lasts late into the night and into the morning of New Year's Day.
In Denmark, two old customs are still sometimes seen at New Year's. The first is breaking plates: families keep old, chipped or worn-out plates and cups throughout the year. When New Year's Eve comes, they celebrate by throwing them at the doors of friends' houses. A pile of broken crockery outside your door on New Year's Day is seen as a good sign, because it indicates lots of friends. Another traditional custom is to climb onto a chair as the New Year's countdown begins and leap off at the stroke of midnight. Being in mid-air at the beginning of the year is said to drive away evil spirits for the coming year.
Many similar customs across Europe are concerned with ensuring good luck in the New Year. In Spain, it is traditional to eat twelve grapes between the first and twelfth stroke of the clock at midnight. In the Netherlands, taking a swim in the cold water of the North Sea at noon on New Year's Day is believed to bring health for the coming year. In Bulgaria, children carry decorated dogwood branches to wish adults good health for the coming year; they are rewarded with small gifts.
New Year's Eve around the world
Although New Year's Eve customs vary from place to place -- and although not all nations celebrate the New Year at the same time -- most New Year customs have similar purposes: to ensure good fortune or good health in the coming year.
In Bolivia and other parts of Latin America, underwear plays an important role in New Year celebrations -- red underwear means that the wearer is hoping for love in the coming year, while yellow underwear symbolises looking for money. In the Philippines, round food represents wishing for wealth in the coming year; the round shape is held to evoke gold coins.
Some celebrations are a little more outlandish than others. For example, in Panama, New Year's celebrations involve highly-detailed dolls known as muñecos. These are often made to resemble celebrities or political figures and are ceremonially burnt as part of New Year's celebrations.
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Other New Years
Not every New Year begins on January 1st. Many parts of the world have differing New Year dates, or New Years that don't always begin on the same day each year. In many Orthodox countries, New Year celebrations are held according to the Julian calendar, which means that the New Year occurs in mid-January. In China, the New Year begins in the spring and is celebrated with gifts, often of money in traditional red envelopes. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is based on a lunar calendar in the same way as Chinese New Year. It typically occurs in early autumn.
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