Many New Year customs that we take for granted actually date from ancient times. This year, ring out the old and ring in the new with a New Year tradition—or two!
Make Some Noise
- In ancient Thailand, guns were fired to frighten off demons.
- In China, firecrackers routed the forces of darkness.
- In the early American colonies, the sounds of pistol shots rang through the air.
- Today, Italians let their church bells peal, the Swiss beat drums, and the North Americans sound sirens and party horns to bid the old year farewell.
Eat Lucky Food
Many New Year’s traditions surround food. Here are a few:
- In the southern US, black-eyed peas and pork foretell good fortune.
- Eating any ring-shaped treat (such as a donut) symbolize “coming full circle” and leads to good fortune. In Dutch homes, fritters called olie bollen are served.
- The Irish enjoy pastries called bannocks.
- In Germany, eating pickled herring brings luck and fortune.
- The tradition of eating 12 grapes at midnight comes from Spain.
- In India and Pakistan, rice promises prosperity.
- Apples dipped in honey are a Rosh Hashanah tradition.
- In Swiss homes, dollops of whipped cream, symbolizing the richness of the year to come, are dropped on the floors (and allowed to remain there!)
Drink a Beverage
Although the pop of a champagne cork signals the arrival of the New Year around the world, some countries have their own traditions.
- Wassail, the Gaelic term for “good health” is served in some parts of England.
- Spiced “hot pint” is the Scottish version of Wassail. Traditionally, the Scots drank to each others’ prosperity and also offered this warm drink to neighbors along with a small gift.
- In Holland, toasts are made with hot, spiced wine.
Give a Gift
New Year’s Day was once the time to swap presents.
- Gifts of gilded nuts or coins marked the start of the new year in Rome.
- Eggs, the symbol of fertility, were exchanged by the Persians.
- Early Egyptians traded earthenware flasks.
- In Scotland, coal, shortbread and silverware were traditionally exchanged for good luck.
Put Your Best Foot Forward
In Scotland, the custom of first-footing is an important part of the celebration of Hogmanay, or New Year’s Eve Day.
This practice holds that the first foot to cross a threshold after midnight will predict the next year’s fortune. Although the tradition varies, those deemed especially fortunate as “first footers” are new brides, new mothers, those who are tall and dark (and handsome?) or anyone born on January 1.
Turn Over a New Leaf
The dawn of a new year is an opportune time to take stock of your life.
- Jews who observe Rosh Hashanah make time for personal introspection and prayer, as well as visiting graves.
- Christian churches hold “watch-night” services, a custom that began in 1770 at Old St. Georges Methodist Church in Philadelphia.
- The practice of making New Year’s resolutions, said to have begun with the Babylonians as early as 2600 B.C., is another way to reflect on the past and plan ahead.
New Year’s Folklore
Some customs and beliefs are simply passed down through the ages. Here are some of our favorite age-old sayings and proverbs.
On New Year’s Eve, kiss the person you hope to keep kissing.
If New Year’s Eve night wind blow south, It betokeneth warmth and growth.
For abundance in the new year, fill your pockets and cupboards today.
If the old year goes out like a lion, the new year will come in like a lamb.
Begin the new year square with every man.(i.e., pay your debts!) –Robert B. Thomas, founder of The Old Farmer’s Almanac
So, whether we resolve to return borrowed farm equipment (as did the Babylonians) or drop a few pounds, we’re tapping into an ancient and powerful longing for a fresh start!
The Old Farmer’s Almanac December 30, 2016