On New Year’s Eve in Spain, much as in Portugal, every family member must have with them 12 grapes just before the clock strikes, in order to eat one for each toll of midnight. Peruvians do the same, but swallow their grapes whole while sitting under a table.
The Greek tradition also involves food. Vasilopita (a New Year’s bread) is served and in it is hidden a lucky coin or charm. The bread is cut at exactly midnight and whoever receives the piece with the coin will have good fortune throughout the year. In Italy, lentils – each representing a gold coin – must be eaten by all.
It is hard to fathom the meaning of some traditions. Peruvians, for example, wear yellow underwear; in Italy it must be red. Also in Italy, Neapolitans throw pots and pans, and sometimes even furniture, out of their windows into the street. In much the same way, children in Puerto Rico chuck pails of water out of the window to rid the house of evil spirits. Muscovites, meanwhile, crowd into Red Square, then risk serious head injury by throwing empty vodka bottles in the air at the stroke of midnight.
Most traditions centre around bringing luck and fortune throughout the following year. The Swiss believe this comes from letting a drop of cream land on the floor on New Year’s Day. Belgian farmers wish their animals New Year blessings, while Romanians go a step further and listen to hear if their farmyard animals will talk back to them on New Year’s Day.
Parades take place in many countries. Bahamians spend months creating fantastic costumes for the Junkanoo parade, which thousands attend on New Year’s Eve. Prizes are given to the most eye-catching ensemble.
In Nepal, the parade lasts four days in spring, always accompanied by traditional music. In Syria and Lebanon, it involves door-to-door stops, while the Greek parade weaves its way through hilly villages carrying depictions of apples, ships and stars. Thailand’s parade is led by an honoured woman, and people march to the beat of drums and gongs dressed up as dragons, buffalos and giants.
In Oberammergau, in Germany, the leader of a long snaking queue of people carries a tall pole with a star on top while singing songs about the past year. Brazilians dress top to toe in white and spend days dancing to samba music on the beach.
Hindu New Year is celebrated quite differently throughout spring. The people of West Bengal, in northern India, like to wear flowers at New Year, and use pink, red, purple or white blooms. In Kerala, in southern India, mothers put food, flowers and little gifts on a special tray. On New Year’s morning, the children must keep their eyes closed until they have been led to the tray.
In central India, enormous orange flags are flown from buildings. In Gujarat, in the west, New Year is celebrated in October/November at the same time as the Hindu festival of Diwali. Small oil lights are placed all along the roofs of buildings. Like almost everyone else, Hindus hope for prosperity, and so they think particularly of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.
Tet Nguyen Dan, or Tet for short, is the Vietnamese New Year and falls some time between 21 January and 19 February. The Vietnamese believe a different god resides in every home, and that at New Year this god will travel to heaven to decide on the virtues and sins of each family member for the past year. He or she is sent off to heaven with a display of fireworks. Because the god will be travelling on the back of a carp, thousands of live carp are bought and released into rivers and ponds to provide the deities with transportation.
The Chinese, too, have a god who travels to heaven to report on their deeds. The celebrations last 14 days, each day requiring a certain task. For example, the third and fourth days are for husbands to pay respect to their wives’ parents, while the ninth day is to make offerings to the Jade Emperor.
Almost as long as the Chinese New Year is Iran’s, known as No Ruz, which lasts 13 days. It begins in March to coincide with spring, when Iranians plant miniature gardens and receive new clothes to wear at a meal of eggs and pilaf. Fami-lies and friends then gather to see if anything strange will happen at midnight. Coloured eggs are put on flat mirrors to see if they will move. The belief is that the eggs will shake at the exact start of the New Year. Whether they do or not, everyone then kisses and says: “May you live for a hundred years!”
In Vancouver, Canadians enjoy the traditional “polar bear” swim. Despite the freezing temperatures, people of all ages put on swimsuits and take the plunge, thus ensuring that they start the New Year with eyes wide open.
The British, however, prefer to start the year with their eyes shut tight. They spend New Year’s Eve drinking “as if there were no tomorrow”. Scottish songs must be sung, even south of the border. The day itself is spent in bed.