Out with the old, in with the new: How the world rings in the New Year

From Japan’s Hatsumode to Brazil’s Reveillon, New Year’s celebrations are a vibrant showcase of cultural diversity.

We’re a few days away from ringing in the New Year. By now, you’ve started hearing the occasional firecrackers, some malls have started with their nightly fireworks display, and Pinoys are stocking up on their round fruits to adorn their Media Noche spread.

Out with the old, in with the new. This is the theme that runs through most—if not all—New Year’s celebrations, whatever time zone we may be when the clock strikes 12. As the fireworks light up the midnight sky and we raise a toast with our loved ones, there’s always an underlying optimism—regardless of your culture—that things will be better in the coming year. This is the beauty of New Year celebrations. If Christmas is all about giving, welcoming the New Year is always about hope.

Despite optimism being a common denominator among New Year’s celebrations the world over, each country and each culture also have its own unique ways of ringing in the New Year. Here are some of the many different ways countries around the world welcome the year that will be.

The Philippines: Media Noche, firecrackers, jumping at midnight

If there’s one country in the world that knows how to welcome the New Year with a bang, it’s the motherland. My earliest memories of New Year’s Eve celebrations have one thing in common: noise. And I’m sure it’s the same for most of you.

Despite authorities cracking down on dangerous firecrackers, especially those with foreboding names such as “Goodbye, Philippines” and “Hamas,” and kids’ favorites watusi and piccolo, resulting in decreasing decibel levels with each passing year, New Year’s Eve is still a cacophonous occasion in most parts of the country. More than just creating noise that annoys elderly neighbors, the practice has a deeper meaning—it is believed to drive away evil spirits and welcome the new energy of the coming year.

Pro-tip: Fireworks and their ilk are expensive. For a more budget-friendly yet equally noisy merrymaking, why not clang your mom’s pots and pans or opt for the lowly torotot instead?

For the New Year’s Eve feast called Media Noche (not to be confused with Noche Buena on Christmas Eve), many families in the Philippines serve 12 round fruits representing each month of the year, like oranges, apples, and grapes, which symbolize prosperity due to their shape. Some also keep coins in their pockets or scattered around the house and wear polka dot outfits to attract financial abundance.

And, of course, every Pinoy kid has experienced jumping ‘til their knees hurt at the stroke of midnight every New Year. This superstition symbolizes the hope for increased height among the young ones, with such a specific wish stemming from how the Philippines is among the shortest countries in the world, ranking fifth according to a 2023 study. The average person in the Philippines stands at only 5’1.5” tall, with the average Filipino man at 5’4” tall and the average Filipino woman at 4’10” tall.

Japan: Hatsumode or the first shrine visit

The Japanese welcome the New Year with Hatsumode, a custom involving the first shrine or temple visit of the year. It is considered an auspicious way to start a new year by paying respects to Shinto or Buddhist deities, praying for good fortune, health, and success in the coming year. The first of January then sees flocks of people making a beeline to their local shrine or temple. However, some people may choose to visit on January 2 or 3 to avoid the crowds.

The visit often involves rituals such as making offerings, ringing bells, and purchasing omamori (charms or amulets), participating in purification rites, and drawing omikuji or fortunetelling slips. More than mere predictions, the Japanese consider the text on an omikuji as advice for the coming year. It is categorized into different levels of luck, ranging from good fortune to grave misfortune.

The Japanese also celebrate New Year with a warm bowl of soba noodles. This tradition dates back to the Kamakura period when a Buddhist temple handed out noodles to the poor. The long, thin noodles are firm yet easy to bite through; it is then believed that eating the soba noodles symbolizes a break away from the year that was.

Brazil: Reveillon and jumping seven waves

We all know that Brazilians know how to party, and they party even harder when ringing in the New Year. New Year’s Eve in Brazil is known as Reveillon, and it is one of the biggest celebrations of the year where people dress in white as it is believed to bring good luck and peace. Since New Year is summer in Brazil, beaches and town squares host parties with live music, lots of dancing, and fireworks displays.

A common superstition in Brazil is the belief that jumping seven waves at the stroke of midnight on January 1 brings good fortune. Many people head to the beaches to participate in this ritual, symbolizing the cleansing of the past and the welcoming of new energy. The tradition is rooted in paying homage to Yemanja, the Afro-Brazilian goddess of the sea. Devotees clad in white would bring flowers, candles, and other offerings to the beach as a gesture of respect and to seek her blessings for the new year.

Spain: Eating 12 grapes

Nochevieja or New Year’s Eve in Spain is celebrated with a variety of traditions that vary across regions. One of the common elements is the eating of the “12 grapes of luck” or las doce uvas de la suerte. Each grape is eaten with each chime of the clock, symbolizing good luck for each month of the coming year. You must do it very quickly, though, as it is said to work only if you manage to eat all of the grapes by the time the clock finishes striking midnight. This tradition is so widely followed across Spain that special packs of 12 grapes are sold in the weeks leading up to New Year’s Eve.

There’s also the midnight countdown in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol where crowds gather to watch the clock on the Real Casa de Correos building strike midnight. As the clock chimes, there are lively celebrations, fireworks, and the eating of the traditional 12 grapes.

The US: Ball drop at Times Square

Many places await the stroke of midnight with fireworks displays and countdowns. These have also become a thing here in the Philippines. This year, for instance, some of the biggest urban centers are staging extravagant countdowns headed by popular celebrities, with Taguig ringing in 2024 with K-Pop supergroup Red Velvet, Regine Velasquez headlining Makati CBD’s celebrations, and Vice Ganda leading the countdown in Quezon City.  

The most famous New Year’s Eve countdown, however, takes place in the Big Apple’s Times Square, where thousands gather—with millions more glued to their TV/phone screens—to watch the ball drop at midnight. This popular tradition was the brainchild of New York Times owner Adolph Ochs and was started in 1907 to ring in January 1908. It has since then been a highly anticipated yearly spectacle, not just in the US, but in other parts of the world.

Denmark: “Broken Dishes” tradition

New Year’s revelries are usually characterized by the loud noises from fireworks, firecrackers, and drunken revelers. In Denmark, however, there is one other kind of New Year’s noise: the sound of breaking plates.

Some parts of Denmark have a quirky tradition involving the throwing of old dishes at the front doors of friends’ and family members’ homes. The more broken dishes you find at your doorstep, the luckier you’ll be in the new year. It’s also seen as a symbol of letting go of the old and welcoming the new.

The Danish also eat Kransekage, a special cake of concentric rings made from almonds, egg whites, and sugar. The cake is tower-shaped, with each ring representing a year.

Italy: Wearing red underwear

If you’re welcoming the New Year in Italy, make sure you wear red underwear which is considered good luck. The origin of this superstition is murky, but there’s no harm in trying, especially if it means attracting good fortune for the coming year.

Aside from this, New Year’s Eve, known as Capodanno or literally, “head of the year,” is celebrated with a mix of traditions, festivities, and of course, when in Italy, lots of molto buono food. Italians celebrate with an elaborate dinner featuring traditional dishes and festive treats. Common in most Capodanno spreads are Panettone and Pandoro, traditional Italian sweet bread and cake, respectively, that are enjoyed during the holiday season and are served with prosecco or sparkling wine.

The Italians also practice the exchanging of gifts in the New Year, but instead of Santa Claus as the main gift-giving figure, they have La Befana, which in Italian folklore is an ugly but good fairy who brings gifts to good children on the eve of Epiphany, which is usually on January 5th or the morning of the 6th.

Greece: Carols and lucky onions, pomegranates

We are all familiar with Christmas carols, but did you know that the Greeks also have New Year’s carols? Called Kalanta, children go door-to-door singing these carols and in return they receive small gifts, sweets, or even money. Kalanta often include good wishes for the household and hope for the new year.

It’s also a tradition in Greece to hang an onion outside the door as it is thought to bring good luck for the year ahead.  Believed to symbolize growth owing to its ability to sprout on its own, an onion is hung on the door after church service on New Year’s Day. Another symbol of prosperity for the Greeks is the breaking of pomegranates, which like the onion, is a symbol of good luck and fertility in Greek culture. It is a tradition for families to break a pomegranate on the ground at midnight on New Year’s Eve. The scattered seeds are also believed to be auspicious.

Another New Year’s Eve tradition is the cutting of the Vasilopita, a special cake named after St. Basil (Agios Vasilios in Greek). The cake is usually round with a coin hidden inside. The person who has the luck of having the coin in their slice is believed to have good fortune for the entire year.

England: Listening to the tolling of Big Ben’s bells

In England, the most popular New Year’s Eve celebration takes place by the River Thames. Revelers await the grand fireworks display near the London Eye, and the countdown to midnight which is accompanied by the tolling of the Big Ben’s bells. As the bells chime, people link hands, form a huge circle, and start singing Auld Lang Syne.

Interestingly, the singing of this song of Scottish origins has transcended borders, becoming a global anthem for welcoming the New Year. The lyrics, which are in the 18th-century Scots language, revolve around remembering and cherishing friendships and experiences. The phrase auld lang syne can be roughly translated to “for the sake of old times.” The song encourages people to raise a cup of kindness in a toast to the past and to foster connections with loved ones.

Germany: Watching ‘Dinner for One

Though Germany celebrates the coming of a New Year in ways similar to other countries’, they have one peculiar tradition that’s all theirs (and to some degree Austria’s, too)—watching Dinner for One (also known in German as Der 90. Geburtstag). Viewing this black-and-white British comedy sketch from 1962 has quite oddly become a tradition for many Germans on New Year’s Eve. Some devoted fans even make the four-course dinner featured in the 18-minute TV short.

An older German New Year’s custom is called Bleigießen, or lead pouring, a form of divination for the coming year. Small lead or tin figures are melted, and the shapes they form are believed to provide clues about the future. This tradition has become more regulated in recent years, with safer materials replacing the potentially harmful lead.

The outliers

Aside from different cultural traditions, there are some countries that celebrate New Year on an altogether different date. The most famous of which are the Chinese, whose New Year is based on the lunar calendar and usually falls between January 21 and February 20. Also known as the Spring Festival, the festivities include big family reunions, feasts, and dragon and lion dances, not just in China but in Chinese communities all over the world.

Nowruz (meaning “new day”) marks the Iranian New Year and the beginning of spring. It usually occurs on or around March 20 or 21. Nowruz is celebrated in Iran and by various communities in Central Asia, the Middle East, and parts of the Caucasus.

Meanwhile, Rosh Hashanah (literally “head of the year”) or the Jewish New Year is dictated by the Hebrew calendar and typically falls in September or early October. The celebration includes religious services, the sounding of the shofar (ram’s horn), and traditional festive meals which include apples dipped in honey and challah, a braided bread that may also be baked in a round shape to represent a year’s cyclical nature.

Songkran is the traditional New Year’s celebration in Thailand, and its date corresponds with the Thai solar calendar. The main festivities take place in mid-April and have become popular among foreign tourists because of its fun street water fights.

Unknown to many, Bali has its own New Year’s celebration. Called Nyepi, the date is determined by the Balinese Pawukon calendar and usually falls in March or April. Unlike most New Year’s celebrations that are marked by raucous festivities, Nyepi is marked by silence and meditation.

Another Southeast Asian neighbor has its own New Year. Chol Chnam Thmey marks the Cambodian New Year and is celebrated in April. The festival is based on the Khmer lunar calendar, and the celebrations include family reunions, traditional dances, and water festivals.

Wherever you may be as the year ends and a new one is ushered in, may you never forget one of the most important messages of the New Year celebrations: There is always hope.

Associate Editor

The new lifestyle.