The end of one year and the beginning of the next is a significant event for people all across the globe. While fireworks and parties are typical in most countries, each country has its own peculiar New Year’s Eve traditions which seem strange to outsiders. There are so many of these unusual traditions that you can find a bizarre custom for every letter of the alphabet.
A is for Años Viejos
In Ecuador, people ring in the New Year by burning effigies representative of people and events that have been important in the past twelve months. These effigies are called Años Viejos (Old Years) and are typically stuffed with firecrackers to make their burning all the more spectacular. The effigies typically represent figures from politics and public life that the creator has been less than fond of over the last year.
B is for broken dishes
In Denmark, it’s usual for people to visit the homes of friends at midnight and throw broken crockery at their front door. The number of smashed dishes piled up on your doorstep is a good indication of your popularity over the previous twelve months.
C is for corn-fed chicken
In Belarus, a popular game amongst single women on New Year’s Eve is to sit with a pile of corn in front of them and let loose a rooster. Whichever woman’s corn pile the rooster chooses to eat from first is supposedly the girl most likely to get married in the next twelve months.
D is for Dinner for One
A bizarre German tradition sees most television channels screen a television sketch at midnight. The English language sketch, Dinner for One, sees a British lady celebrate her birthday by setting a table for four guests, all of whom have passed away. The punch line, ‘same procedure as every year’, has become synonymous with New Year in Germany. This unusual tradition has also gained some popularity in Sweden.
E is for eating
Many countries celebrate the New Year with a lavish meal. From humus-heavy banquets in the Middle East to a traditional breakfast of hot chocolate and fried pastry on New Year’s Day in Spain, the food that’s ingested on New Year’s Eve is as varied as the countries that celebrate it.
F is for fève
The French continue with their New Year and Christmas celebrations right up until Twelfth Night (January 6th), when they round off the festivities with the eating of a flat pastry filled with almond paste. Hidden inside the pastry is a fève, a small china figure representative of a king or queen. Whoever finds the fève dons a paper crown and chooses another guest to be their co-monarch.
G is for grapes
A Spanish tradition that has spread to Mexico, Guatemala, and a number of other Latin American countries is the eating of a grape at each of the twelve chimes which sound at midnight. This hundred-year-old tradition began when grape growers in Alicante tried to find a way to cut down on their production surplus at the year’s end. It has since become a superstition that’s supposed to bring good luck for the year ahead.
H is for Hogmanay
Hogmanay is the name for a series of Scottish traditions associated with the New Year. Alongside the famous street party in Edinburgh, Scots engage in a number of other more unusual and less well-publicized traditions. One of the most popular is the practice of ‘first-footing’, which involves turning up at a friend’s house at midnight brandishing whiskey and a fruit cake or shortbread, which is supposed to bring the recipient good luck for the year ahead.
I is for inflatable wishing spheres
As part of a huge celebration centered around Marina Bay in Singapore, upwards of 20,000 inflatable wishing spheres containing more than half a million wishes for the year ahead written by Singaporeans are released in a visually stunning display.
J is for jumping
In the Philippines, a number of traditions and superstitions are observed to mark the New Year. One of the more unusual is the practice of jumping as high as possible on New Year’s Eve, which is supposed to increase your height during the year ahead.
K is for Kan and the tradition of oudejaarsconference
Dutch comedian Wim Kan became a national hero in the Netherlands after being interned by the Japanese during World War II. The experience sharpened Kan’s satirical senses, and in 1954 he delivered an extremely well received satirical diatribe on Dutch radio. This first oudejaarsconference proved so popular that it has now become a Dutch tradition for a biting satirical review of the previous year’s events to be delivered on television each New Year’s Eve.
L is for luggage
Some Latin American countries observe a tradition of taking luggage outside the home on New Year’s Eve to symbolize trips to be taken during the year ahead.
M is for marathon
Several cities hold races on New Year’s Eve, most often named in honor of Saint Silvester, to whom Catholic tradition devotes December 31st. The biggest of these races is in Sao Paulo in Brazil, and the race is popularly referred to as ‘the Saint Silvester Marathon’, despite being less than ten miles in length.
N is for New York City
The dropping of the ball on Times Square is broadcast around the globe each year as one of the definitive images of New Year’s Eve. The first ball drop was organized by the staff of The New York Times in 1907 and has become a much-loved tradition ever since.
O is for Ōmisoka
Ōmisoka is the Japanese name for December 31st. January 1st is regarded as the most important day of the year in Japanese culture, so people spend Ōmisoka thoroughly cleaning their homes, schools, and businesses so that they can welcome in the New Year with a clean slate.
P is for polka dots
In the Philippines, round objects are regarded as being symbolic of coins and people like to surround themselves with as many as possible on New Year’s Eve to bring themselves financial good luck for the year ahead. As well as eating round fruits, the tradition causes most people to break out polka dot covered clothing.
Q is for quality time with the dead
In the Chilean town of Talca, a tradition began a little over a decade ago when a family entered a cemetery at midnight to see in the New Year at the grave of a passed loved one. Many of the town’s residents copied them the following year and a tradition was born.
R is for ribbons
In the festivities that swamp Suriname’s commercial district, the biggest stores compete with each other to light the largest and most spectacular red firecracker ribbon. It is considered a great honor to be responsible for the largest of these ribbons.
S is for the same again
The Serbian tradition of ‘repriza’ sees Serbs return to the place they spent the evening of December 31st again on January 1st to once again celebrate the New Year’s arrival.
T is for temples ringing bells
While most of the world rings in the New Year with the sound of twelve chimes or bells, Japanese Buddhist temples sound out 108 bells. These are said to represent and repent for the 108 bonō, or mental defilements committed by all people.
U is for underwear
The people of a surprising number of countries have superstitions relating to the color of underwear that they wear on New Year’s Eve. Italian and Spanish tradition has it that red underwear should be worn on New Year’s Eve to bring luck for the year ahead. Several South American countries have similar traditions, with the people of Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, and Venezuela all believing that red underwear should be worn to bring true love in the coming year, while yellow underwear is worn to bring wealth and prosperity over the next twelve months.
V is for visitors
Russian tradition has it that if the first visitor after midnight on New Year’s Eve is a man, good luck will come in the following year. This is especially true if the guest is an unexpected one.
W is for white
While yellow and red underwear is actually typical throughout Latin America, Brazilians’ New Year’s Eve outerwear is typically white, as they believe this will bring good luck for the following year.
X is for X-Mas
A number of East European countries hold New Year’s Eve celebrations that people in the West would normally associate with December 25th. Throughout Serbia, Ukraine, Russia, and other parts of the former Eastern Bloc, a Santa-like figure known as Grandpa Frost visits family homes on New Year’s Eve and leaves presents underneath an evergreen tree.
Y is for Year-End Song Festival
Every New Year’s Eve, Japanese television screens The Red and White Year-End Song Festival. This event began on radio in 1951 and has been shown on TV since 1953. It pits a red team of female singers against a white team of male singers, with judges deciding the winners at the end of the show.
Z is for the Zone
An unusual American tradition is the SyFy Channel’s decidedly unseasonal Twilight Zone marathon, during which episodes of the horror show are screened back-to-back throughout the evening.
Christopher Williams holds a degree in English with Film Studies from King’s College London.