New Year's Traditions Around the World

How people in different countries say goodbye to old Father Time and celebrate Baby New Year
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It's time to put away the holiday decorations, jot down a resolution or two and reflect on how quickly 2018 has passed. Another year has ended and it's time to usher in a new one. There are lots of ways to welcome in the New Year. Your family might stay up until midnight to bang pots and pans, pop open a bottle of bubbly and watch the ball drop in New York's Times Square. Many believe that sharing a kiss at midnight is a sign of good luck.

For some folks, the New Year signals a day to relax, watch football and unwind from the flurry of holiday activity. Others may review their successes with last year's resolutions before setting attainable goals for the coming year. 

People from all corners of the world participate in many customs and traditions, unique to their culture and history. Here's a sampling of cultural ways to say goodbye to old Father Time and greet Baby New Year. Perhaps you'll add one or two to your family celebration.

Good Luck Grapes

If you are in Spain or Portugal for New Year's Eve, you can share in the local custom of selecting 12 grapes from a bunch. Then, as the clock strikes midnight, eat them one at a time making a wishing with each grape as a way to bring good luck for the next 12 months. Latin American countries share this custom.

In Northern Portugal children go caroling from home to home and are given treats and coins.

Down Under Celebrations

In Australia and New Zealand, New Year's Eve falls when summer is in full swing. Fireworks symbolize the crossover from New Year's Eve, marking the end of the old year, to New Year's Day, which signals the beginning of the New Year. The largest and most elaborate fireworks occur at midnight in Sydney Harbor, an iconic Australian landmark. On this night, the harbor is lit with spectacular fireworks, where hundreds of cultures unite for the Harbor of Light parade.

Because New Zealand is located close to the international date line, it is one of the first countries in the world to welcome the New Year. It is celebrated as a day to relax, visit family and friends, and perhaps attend a horse racing carnival or other summer day fair. Instead of football, New Zealanders watch cricket.

European Festivities

Jan. 1 is an important date in Greece because it is not only the first day of the New Year but also St. Basil's Day. A traditional Greek celebration features Vasilopita, a cake with a silver or gold coin baked inside. On New Year's Day, the cake is sliced as a blessing to the home and to bring good luck for the New Year. The first piece is for St Basil, the second for the house, the next for the most senior member of the household down to the youngest member and often includes absent family members. Whoever finds the coin in their piece of cake will be lucky for the next year.

To predict the future, families in Germany and Austria melt a small amount of lead by holding a flame under a tablespoon, then pour the lead into a bowl or bucket of cold water. The resulting pattern is interpreted to predict the coming year. A heart or ring shape means a wedding, a ball means luck will roll your way and a pig signifies plenty of food in the year ahead.

South of the Border

Bolivians who want to travel in the New Year must take their luggage to the door of their house or go upstairs. Another custom is to wear underwear backwards: wear red to be lucky in love and yellow for wealth. At midnight, Bolivians turn their underwear frontward to symbolize moving forward into the New Year. Some Bolivian families make beautiful little wood or straw dolls to hang outside their homes to bring good luck.

Brazil may be the most celebrated locale to welcome in the New Year. Millions of people from around the world travel to Rio de Janeiro's shores, especially in Copacabana, to experience majestic fireworks that light up the sky above the beaches. Your good luck will increase if you can jump over seven different waves while making your New Year's wishes, one for each wave. Brazilians believe lentils signify wealth, so on the first day of the New Year they eat lentil soup or lentils and rice.

At midnight on New Year's Eve, Mexican families open the front door and symbolically sweep out the old year before tossing coins on the ground and sweeping them into the house wishing for prosperity in the coming year. To symbolize renewal, Mexicans also throw a bucket of water out the window.

"Auld Lang Syne" — a Scottish Creation

The most popular New Year's Eve song, "Auld Lang Syne," is actually an old Scottish song. Poet Robert Burns transcribed and refined the lyrics after hearing them sung by an old man. He published the song in the 1796 edition of Scots Musical Museum, a collection of six volumes of traditional Scottish folk songs and music. "Auld Lang Syne" translates as "old long since" and means "times gone by." Bandleader Guy Lombardo popularized the song in 1929 and turned it into a New Year's classic.

The birthplace of "Auld Lang Syne" is also the home of Hogmanay, a rousing Scottish New Year's celebration. Shortly after midnight on New Year's Eve, neighbors visit each other and impart New Year's wishes. They are called "first footers" and traditionally bring along a small gift. You will be especially lucky if a tall, dark and handsome man is the first to enter your house after the New Year rings in. The Scottish also believe that you should clear your debts before "the bells" ring at midnight.

Chinese New Year

The Chinese New Year can fall between late January and the third week of February. This year it's Feb. 16. The exact date is fixed by the lunar calendar, in which a new moon marks the beginning of each new month. There are parades where thousands of people line the streets to watch the procession of floats. Dancing dragons and lions weave their way through the crowded streets. The dragon is associated with longevity and wealth. Inside the costumes are 50 dancers, twisting and turning the dragon's long silk body and blinking eyes.

The Chinese believe evil spirits dislike loud noises so they decorate their houses with plastic firecrackers. The loud noises are intended to frighten away evil spirits and bad luck that these spirits might bring.

Families give out lucky money in red envelopes with their family name and good luck messages written on them in gold, but only to the unmarried and children of the family.

How to Say ‘Happy New Year’ Around the World

Brazilian: feliz ano novo
Brazilian Portuguese: feliz ano novo no brasileiro
Chinese (Cantonese): Sun nien fai lok
Chinese (Mandarin): Xin nian yu kuai
Czechoslavakia: Scastny Novy Rok
Finnish: Onnellista Uutta Vuotta
French: Bonne année
German: glückliches neues Jahr
Greek: ef?tychisméno to néo étos
Hawaiian: Hau’oli makahiki hou
Italian: Buon anno
Portuguese: Feliz Ano Novo
Philippines (Tagalog): Manigong Bagong Taon
Spanish: Feliz Año Nuevo; Prospero Ano Nuevo

Claire Yezbak Fadden is an award-winning freelance writer and mother of three sons. Follow her on Twitter @claireflaire.


This article was updated Dec. 19, 2018.


Categories: Cultural, Family, Seasonal Food + Fun, Seasonal Fun, Things To Do