New Year's Day traditions around the globe

Bill Hancock
Runnels County Register
New Year's Day celebration in Sydney, Australia.

Do you eat grapes or black eye peas for good luck on New Year's Day? If you eat grapes, you're probably from Spain. Spanish locals will eat exactly 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight to honor a tradition that started in the late 19th century. Back in the 1800s, vine growers in the Alicante region created the tradition as a means of selling more grapes toward the end of the year. The sweet celebration quickly caught on. Today, Spaniards and non-Hispanics alike enjoy eating one grape for each of the first 12 bell strikes after midnight in the hopes that this will bring about a year of good fortune and prosperity.

New Year's Eve and New Year's Day are celebrated differently by cultures around the world. The world has over 6,500 languages and tens of thousands of cultures, and they all have interesting and unique ways of starting the new year off.

January 1st carries such importance in Scotland that it has its own name, Hogmanay. In case you were curious about the pronunciation, it's HOG-mə-NAY. There is a full 1-minute video on Youtube, solely dedicated to properly pronouncing Hogmanay.

The Scottish observe several traditions on January 1st, but perhaps their most famous is First Footing. According to the tradition, the first person who crosses through the threshold of your house after midnight on New Year's Day should be a dark-haired male if you wish to have good luck in the coming year. Traditionally, these men come bearing gifts of coal, salt, shortbread, and whiskey, all of which further contribute to the idea of having good fortune.

The Catalonian Sun Goddess at a Scottish Hogmanay New Year's Day celebration in 2005.

Why dark-haired men? Well, back when Scotland was being invaded by the Vikings, the last thing you wanted to see at your doorstep was a light-haired man, wearing a Hspangenhelm helmet and wielding a giant battle axe. The opposite of the golden haired Viking is a dark-haired man, who symbolizes opulence and success.

Obiebollen, a fried dough beignet that is eaten by the Dutch on New Year's Day for good luck.

People of The Netherlands enjoy a deep fried treat on New Year's Day: Oliebollen, which is a Dutch beignet. The tradition goes all the way back to the days of pagan worship. Ancient Germanic tribes would eat these pieces of deep-fried dough during the Yule so that when Germanic goddess Perchta, better known as Perchta the Belly Slitter, tried to cut their stomachs open and fill them with trash (a punishment for those who hadn't sufficiently partaken in yuletide cheer), the fat from the dough would cause her sword to slide right off. Today, oliebollen are enjoyed on New Year's Eve. Trying to find a Dutch food vendor in the winter months who isn't selling these doughnut-like balls would be a challenge.

A painting, "Meid met oliebollen," by Dutch artist Aelbert Cuyp from 1652. The painting is of a woman holding a pot of Oliebollen, a dish that the Dutch use to celebrate the new year.

A Russian New Year's Day tradition that started a mere 25-years ago involves planting trees underwater. Yes, the frozen tundra of Russia and icy lakes don't stop underwater tree planting! Two divers, appropriately named Father Frost and the Ice Maiden, venture into frozen Lake Baikal, the world's largest freshwater lake, and take a New Year Tree more than 100 feet below the surface. The tree is typically a decorated spruce. Though the temperature is normally well below freezing in Russia on New Year's Eve, people travel from all over the world to partake in this frozen tradition

The Greeks hang onions from their doors to promote growth during the new year. Greek culture has long associated this food with the idea of development, seeing as all the odorous onion ever seemingly wants is to plant its roots and keep growing.

The Greeks also have another unique tradition: Smashing pomegranates. The origins of this tradition are in ancient Greek mythology. To the Greeks, the pomegranate symbolizes fertility, life, and abundance, and so the fruit has come to be associated with good fortune in modern Greece. Just after midnight on New Year's Eve, it is customary for Greeks to smash a pomegranate against the door of their house. It is said that the number of pomegranate seeds that end up scattered is directly correlated with the amount of good luck to come. It doesn't mention if the pomegranates are smashed against the door before or after the onions are hung.

In Chile, the dead are included in the New Year's Day celebrations. On January 1, mass isn't held in churches, it's held in cemeteries so that the dead can be included in the celebrations.

Hog Maw is a distinctly Pennsylvania Dutch dish prepared to celebrate the New Year.

Let's not leave out some distinct celebrations by various cultures in the USA. The Pennsylvania Dutch typically celebrate New Year's Day with Hog Maw, sometimes called "pig's stomach" or "Susquehanna turkey" or "Pennsylvania Dutch goose." It's a Pennsylvania Dutch dish. In the Pennsylvania German language, it is known as "Seimaage" (sigh-maw-guh), originating from its German name Saumagen. It is made from a cleaned pig's stomach traditionally stuffed with cubed potatoes and loose pork sausage. Other ingredients may include cabbage, onions, and spices. It was traditionally boiled in a large pot covered in water, not unlike Scottish haggis, but it can also be baked or broiled until browned or split, then it is often drizzled with butter, sometimes browned, before serving. It is usually served hot on a platter, cut into slices, and topped with horseradish or stewed tomatoes. It can also be served cold as a sandwich. Often served in the winter, it was made on hog butchering days on the farms of Lancaster and Berks Counties and elsewhere in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country.

Hog Maw remains a traditional New Year's Day side dish for many Pennsylvania German families. In fact, many families believe that it is bad luck if not even a small piece is consumed on New Year's Day, as is the case with pork and sauerkraut. The stomach is purchased at one of the many traditional butchers at local farmers' markets. The original recipe was most likely brought to Pennsylvania from the Palatinate area of Germany, where it is called Saumagen and served with sauerkraut, another Pennsylvania Dutch food. Indeed, Saumagen is reported to have been a favorite of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, a native of the Palatinate (Rheinland-Pfalz) Region.

The South American country of Ecuador welcomes the New Year with bonfires and the burning of scarecrows. At the center of each of these bonfires are effigies, often representing politicians, pop culture icons, and other figures from the year prior. The burnings are called, ""año viejo," or "old year." They're held at the end of every year to cleanse the world of the bad from the past 12 months so that they can make room or the good to come.

Some cultures read tea leaves, coffee grounds or wine sediments to try and tell what the future holds. The Germans read lead, as in the melted down heavy metal. German New Year's Eve Festivities center around a truly unique activity known as Bleigießen (pronounced Bligh - geese -n), or lead pouring. Using the flames from a candle, each person melts a small piece of lead or tin and pours it into a container of cold water. The shape that the lead or tin forms is said to reveal a person's fate for the upcoming year, not unlike Tasseography.

The Japanese New Year's Day celebrations revolve around the Buddhist tradition of bell ringing. To be exact, 108 rings of the bell. That's how many times Buddhist temples in Japan ring their bells, 107 times on New Year's Eve, and once when the clock strikes midnight. This tradition, known as Joyanokane, is meant to both dispel the 108 evil desires in each and every person and cleanse the previous year of past sins. The 108 evil desires are known as "The 108 Defilements of Buddhism." The Defilements include, contempt, wrath, envy, hurt, greed, hatred, cursing, lying, intolerance along with about 99 other defilements.

A quick trip back to Russia shows us another unique Russian tradition that may not exactly call to the inner foodie in us; drinking ashes. Okay, before you get nauseated, I should point out that these aren't human ashes. That would just be weird. Russians write their New Year's wishes down on a piece of paper, burn the paper with a candle, and then drink the ashes in a glass of champagne, "I taste hints of pear and lemon. Oh, is that also college-ruled spiral paper that I taste? Perfect vintage, indeed." The old New Year's Resolutions with a Russian flavor.

The Czechs don't read tea leaves or lead or coffee grounds to tell the future. They read apples. It sounds so boring after all of the other New Year's Day traditions that we've covered thus far. But, the Czechs have a strong bond with this area of Texas, having been some of the first to settle it from Europe. The night before the new year begins, the apple is cut in half, and the shape of the apple's core is said to determine the fate of everyone surrounding it. If the apple's core resembles a star, then everyone will soon meet again in happiness and health. But, if it looks like a cross, then someone at the New Year's Eve party should expect to fall ill. Can you get cross about getting a cross?

Putting on a few extra holiday pounds? Well, if you lived in Estonia, you'd put on a few more pounds. The Estonians celebrate New Year's Eve by eating 7, 9 or 12 meals. Those numbers are considered good luck in Estonia. They believe that eating numerous meals will bring good look in the new year. It's not said if those are low-carb meals. Much like Chile, the Estonians don't leave out those long lost loved ones. They'll intentionally leave extra food on their plates so that the visiting spirits of their deceased family members won't go hungry in the new year. Thoughtful!

In Ireland the single women sleep with a special guest in their bed: mistletoe.The single ladies put mistletoe under their pillow on New Year's Eve. Tradition says that it helps the ladies find their future husbands, even if it's only in their dreams, "He was so dreamy.. and green... like misteltoe!"

Denmark has a smashing New Year's Day tradition: smashing plates and old dishes. Danish residents save their unused dinnerware and affectionately shatter them against doors of their families and friends as a way to ward off bad spirits. Stay away from grandma's China cabinet!

Other Danish traditions include jumping off chairs at midnight to “leap” into the new year and consuming Kransekage, a wreath-shaped cake created using marzipan rings stacked on top of each other with a bottle of wine in the center. The cake is decorated with ornaments and flags. Eating cake, smashing dishes and jumping off of chairs. That sounds like a par-tay!

A Christian New Year Day celebration is the Feast of Circumcision. The feast is a celebration held on New Year's Day, in celebration of the circumcision of Jesus in accordance with Jewish tradition, eight days according to the Semitic and southern European calculation of intervals of days after his birth, the occasion on which the child was formally given his name.

Circumcision of Christ, Menologion of Basil II, from the 11th century. The Feast of Circumcision is held on January 1st by Christians around the world.

The feast day appears on January 1, in the liturgical calendar of the Byzantine Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. In the General Roman Calendar, the January 1 feast, which from 1568 to 1960 was called "The Circumcision of the Lord and the Octave of the Nativity", is now named the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, and the Octave Day of the Nativity of the Lord. It is celebrated by some churches of the Anglican Communion and virtually all Lutheran churches. In these latter Western Christian denominations, the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus Christ marks the eighth day (octave day) of Christmastide.

However you choose to welcome in the New Year as you usher out 2020, remember to do it safely. Don't drive after the midnight toasts if you've had too much celebratory champagne or other spirits. Call a friend or call a taxi. Don't start off the new year by becoming the spirit that Estonians leave food on their plates for. The new year holds too much promise, and too much hope to waste by starting off the new year in the sheriff's local county bed and breakfast, or worse.

Happy New Year to everyone from the Runnels County Register! Hang some onions, smash some dishes and pomegranates or just sit back with loved one and a glass of bubbly (with or without ashes) while watching some fireworks!