Happy New Years! Prosperos Anos! Bonne Année! Today is a new year and a chance to start, end or continue where you left off in 2012. For the past four millennia, mankind has recognized the beginning of the year (though what represented "the beginning" always varied) as a time to celebrate the good, put out the bad, and seek good favor and fortune for the future.
If you thought Santa was done with his shifts by December 25, then you've must've forgot about Greece. December 25 is an awfully solemn day in Greece. After all, the Eastern Orthodox Church doesn't celebrate Jesus' birth until January 7. But that also means that Aghios Vassilis, the Greek Santa Claus, doesn't make his rounds until the big gift-giving spree on New Years. In another practice that completely mirrors what we tend to associate with Christmas, Greek children go door-to-door to ask for permission to sing carols at their neighbors' doorsteps.
The more I research different cultures and their festivities, the more I begin to pick up on a recurring theme of visiting graveyards. In Finland, families flock to graveyards on Christmas evening; in several Central and South American cultures, they visit cemeteries on Hallow's Eve. But Chile is the first one I heard to visit a cemetery for a New Year's Eve mass. Chileans families celebrate the New Year with deceased members by setting up chairs next to their graveside. Like the other cemetery traditions I've mentioned, this is a way to include all family members in the New Year's festivities for eternity.
There are numerous New Years' traditions that aren't made for the the claustrophobic at heart. In America, gathering at Times Square to watch a six-ton crystal ball drop isn't a place for someone who needs space. In Madrid, Spain, Plaza de Espana is the equivalent, but not for the ball dropping scene that we are so accustomed to in America. All throughout Spain, people welcome the New Year by quickly eating 12 grapes. Revellers congregate in major squares in their locale to gobble a grape per second as they countdown the last 12 seconds of the year. The tradition signifies good luck for each month of the New Year.
One New Year's tradition that proves to be a remnant of the pre-obesity era is the Estonian tradition of eating seven meals on New Year's day. It was once believed that if a man is able to eat seven to 12 full meals, he could expect to see an abundance of food through the forthcoming year. It also means that he has the strength of seven men. But by no surprise, the turn of the century has made those seven meals look a lot more like Bourban.
Circles make the world go round. It has been long noted that every culture and society has found something to be inherently sacred about circles. But the sacrality of circles in the Philippines is poignant during the start of the New Year. From wearing polka dot designs to stocking up on a cornucopia of round fruits, eating grapes like their former Spanish colonizers, and tossing coins around a pan as they march around the house, Filipinos keep everything round for the New Years. And why shouldn't they? Especially when it's believed to bring good fortune and prosperity to your household.
Some people write down bad things from year prior on a piece of paper and toss it into the paper shredder; some people just burn scarecrows. Ecuadorians usher in the New Year by scaring away bad luck when they burn a newspaper-stuffed-scarecrow outside their homes. The burning tradition is said to burn away the bad things of the prior year and scare bad luck away from the next year to pave the way for nothing but good luck. However, it has been increasingly more common to burn effigies, often politicians, from the prior year. Fidel Castro has been used to burn away plenty of bad luck.
It seems that all too many single folks spend the first few moments of the New Year pondering their past and future relationships. But at least the single ladies of Belarus know how to make things a little fun, if not outright strange. In one popular game for singles in Belarus, a pile of corn is sat in front of each single woman. Then, a rooster is sat in the middle to pick which pile he'll peck at first. Whoever is the lucky lady to get her corn eaten by the rooster can expect to be the first to marry. Another game is for a married woman to hide items around her house for her single friends to search for in a "manhunt." Whoever finds bread will likely marry a rich man; whoever finds a ring will marry a handsome man.
If you ever dropped and broke a dish as a child, your mom probably threw a fit. But if you broke that same dish in Denmark, you'd be able to get away with it for at least one day out of the year. Throughout the year, Danes save their old dishes only to throw them by the dozen at the doorsteps of family friends on New Years. In theory, the bigger the pile of broken dishes you find on your door steps, the bigger pile of friends you have. But then I'm sure it may be hard to tell whether or not a foe or two tossed in a tea cup into your bundle of friends.
The color of your underwear should never be taken lightly; especially on New Year's Eve. In many Central and South American countries, the color of your underwear can either bring in love or money in the new year. Bolivia is perhaps most known for the tradition of wearing bright yellow undies to increase fortune for the the new year. In Mexico, red is most popular for bringing in love and happiness after midnight.
Nobody does New Year's like the Scots, so much so that they even have a special name for their New Years' Eve called Hogmanay (which loosely translates to "great love day"). As it is, the first song that everyone sings after toasting is the old Scottish classic "For Auld Lang Syne." But in the midst of bonfires and locals parading around town swinging poles with fireballs to purify the incoming year, there is one Scottish New Year's tradition that sticks out even more. Every year, Scots religiously follow the tradition of "the first-footing." To bring in good luck for the new year, the first visitor to step their foot in your door on New Years should be tall, dark and bearing coal, shortbread, salt, black bun and whisky. This is apparently a throwback to the Viking days, when locals would evade their rude blond-haired visitors.