I’m curious about how everyone spent their New Year.
When I was young, my sister and I would wait for the clock to strike midnight, then race to the end of our driveway and bang on pots and pans that we had borrowed from the kitchen cupboards. Early the next morning our mom would bundle us up, and our family would drive to the other side of town to watch my dad and his friends hop off of a bridge into the Puget Sound’s frosty waters.
It seemed crazy (though admittedly wiser than the year that my friends and I decided to each consume a habanero chili during the countdown, and I, in an attempt to one-up my pals, ate two, then spent the next day on my parent’s brown leather couch in the fetal position, trying to calm my stomach’s gurgles), but the tradition took, and even expanded to Seattle in 1993, with the only real difference being that, instead of dropping into the water from a bridge, people charge the freshwaters from the shore at Matthews Beach Park. Willingly. To me, this seems worse; having to progressively ease into the water is like slowly ripping off a Band-Aid. The first year’s turnout totaled around 300 people, but this year the number was closer to 1,000.
I’m still working out my own New Year’s traditions, but one advantage to living abroad is that, even though integrating with the host culture isn’t immediate, an instant bond is formed between you and all other foreigners. You’re different like they’re different, and that makes you allies. They become your family, and with them, you gain their cultures and traditions. There are a few unique customs – like in Japan where the day is used to welcome Toshigami, their god of the New Year, or a stand-up comedian recapping the previous year in Belgium and Iceland – but the majority of countries usher in the new Gregorian year with similar fanfare.
To start, everyone likes spending time with friends or family. Some go to church, some share special meals, most go to parties or public events and countdowns, exchanging Champagne toasts or kisses at midnight. Fireworks and light displays puncture the sky, and occasionally, like in Denmark and London, there is a parade. The Chez Republic’s traditions are almost identical to our own.
What amused me most were the superstitious practices that accompany the holiday. Almost every country has them. Without fail, the rituals say “good-bye” to the past year, or are a means to improve circumstances in the year to come.
Last year I was in Colombia during the holiday, and spent the day fattening up a life-size dummy made of scrap wood, straw and explosives that were stuffed into old garments. Thousands of dummies, along with ours, were set ablaze on the streets at midnight, symbolizing a burning away of the old and unpleasant from the year before, leaving the New Year to begin with a clean slate. Ecuador does the same.
In Mexico, people decorate their homes using specific pigments to express their wishes. White is said to bring about good health, yellow is for better or steady employment, and so on. Brazilians spending the day at the beach dress in white for good luck in the New Year, and Venezuela, among others, takes a different approach, limiting promising colors to their underwear. Slip on a pair of red briefs for better romance, yellow for happiness.
Circles are turned to worldwide to attract wealth. In Italy, lentils are eaten at midnight, since they are round like coins, and, for the same reason, on New Year’s Eve, Filipinos dress themselves in fabrics that include circles, like polka dots.
One of my old roommates from Spain said that people in his city eat 12 grapes in 12 seconds when there are exactly 12 hours left in the year for good luck, and a friend from Chili told me that their customs include lugging a suitcase up and down a staircase to beckon good travels in the year ahead.
My favorite tradition, in which about half of the United States participates, is making New Year’s Resolutions. Fun fact: people who make concrete resolutions are 10 times more likely to reach their goals. I’m writing down mine and slapping them on the fridge to up my odds. This year my list includes – and now that this is published, I have you to hold me accountable – spending less time in front of my computer screen, improving my Spanish so that I can have a real conversation with my in-laws, and building up the courage to join you in the Polar Bear Plunge this time next year.