New Year’s celebrations in the US are marked by parties (including the accompanying drunkenness and revelry), champagne, Times Square, the Macy’s and Rose Bowl parades, and football. They are a sort of antidote to the hype of Christmas. But how do other cultures celebrate the New Year? And, perhaps more importantly, what do they eat?
Celebration of the New Year is very old, and occurs in some form in every culture of the world. The ancient Romans celebrated the eve of the New Year at the winter Solstice or Saturnalia, which took place over a seven-day period to honor the god Saturn. All social customs and rules were suspended, businesses and government offices were closed, wars were interrupted or postponed, and slaves exchanged places with their masters. This temporary suspension of the social order was typical of ancient New Year’s Eve rites, to celebrate the turning of the year. The practice was accompanied by masquerading and exchange of dress between men and women, drinking, gambling, gluttony, and other forms of self-indulgence.
The Romans originally celebrated New Year’s Day in March, with a festival to honor the god Mars. With the adoption of the Julian calendar, January 1 became the first day of the year; and the first month was named to honor the God Janus, the God of beginnings and endings, represented by two faces, one looking back and one looking forward.
In Western Europe, until the late 16th century, the dates of New Year’s celebrations varied by country. The most commonly observed dates were December 25 or March 25 (the Incarnation of Jesus). In Eastern Europe and the Orthodox Church, the year began on September 1.
Pope Gregory XIII’s 1582 decree adopted the Gregorian calendar, with January 1 as the first day of the year. Not all countries adopted the Gregorian calendar, however, and the date of the New Year continued to vary. Great Britain and the new US colonies, for example, did not adopt the January 1 date until 1752.
Today the Gregorian calendar has been adopted throughout most of the world. Nonetheless, many cultures still celebrate the New Year at other times, based upon the season and agriculture or calendars other than the Gregorian calendar.
Common to all New Year’s celebrations is the belief in releasing of the old, heralding of the new, and hopes for good fortune in the new year. Nearly all customs relate to this belief.
In Ethiopia, Enqutash or “Gift of Jewels” is celebrated on September 11–12. This is the end of the rainy season and is the flower season. Ethiopians wash away the old in the nearest lake, river, or stream. Children carry armfuls of flowers to neighbors in exchange for money and sweets. The gift of a rose, the symbol of patriotism, is reserved for a special person.
Israel, and Jews throughout the rest of the world, follow a lunar calendar and observe Rosh Hashanah, or “Head of the Year,” in September or October with sweet foods for a “sweet year.” It begins with 10 days of repentance and ends with Yom Kippur, a day of atonement and fasting.
Vietnam celebrates Tet, between January 19 and February 20. Everyone turns a year older, and candy and flowers are exchanged as gifts. The Vietnamese also hang red banners with new year’s wishes on them.
The Iranians celebrate Nouruz, or New Day, on the first day of spring by planting pots of lentils or wheat, which sprout to symbolize new life and good fortune. They are later dumped into a nearby body of water. This latter ritual symbolizes the release of bad luck and ensures good luck for the new year.
India celebrates the “Festival of Lights,” Diwali or Deepavali, in October or November. People place rows of tiny lamps, or divas, in and around their homes, to invite Lakshmi, the goddess of luck and prosperity, into their homes.
The Chinese arguably have the most fun at the New Year. They celebrate for two weeks (starting mid-January to mid-February) with offerings to the gods, especially the Kitchen God, fortune telling, lucky phrases and New Year’s prints, firecrackers, flowers, parades, the Nian monster, feasting, and a Lantern Festival.
Gift giving on New Year’s Day is popular in many European countries, as it was with the ancient Romans, who believed that spending money on gifts would attract good fortune in the New Year. New Year’s resolutions are based on a Christian, particularly Puritan, custom designed towards self improvement and renewal. Noisemaking was believed to ward off evil spirits and remove evil influences. It is practiced in many countries around the world.
In Britain, a “first footer” is the first guest who sets foot in one’s house after the New Year begins. A dark-haired man brings good luck, but he must be carrying a piece of coal for warmth, a black bun for plenty of food, and a bottle of spirits for prosperity. Babies, of course, represent renewal and rebirth.
Many indigenous cultures celebrate a new year tied to natural cycles. For example, in South America, indigenous groups celebrate at the winter solstice, which occurs in June in that hemisphere.
A Taste of the New Year
Despite the different ways we celebrate the new year, food and feasting are a common element in most celebrations. Click on the links at the top of this article to find some easy recipes that help you put a new taste in this year’s celebration.