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New Year rituals for luck, love and laughter

Some traditions from around the world

By Jennifer Stern

, |

New Year rituals for luck, love and laughter

Some traditions from around the world

By Jennifer Stern

, |

6 min read

While most of the serious New Year traditions are about effective practical strategies to ensure that you start the New Year with the best possible chances of health, happiness and success, there are some lovely traditions for bringing in some good old-fashioned luck. And some that are just silly, frivolous and fun. If you’re planning a New Year’s do for the estate, consider some of these (obviously, not all) and remember to play safe.

Rituals to ensure or predict a good year

Every year we hope that the next year will be better than the last – and this year particularly so. So here are some time-honoured (if not actually proven) rituals to get 2021 off to a good start.

  • In Colombia, people with itchy feet run around the block with an empty suitcase to ensure pleasant travel in the New Year. Some say, if you put a few banknotes in the case, you stand a greater chance of doing that travel in the pointy end of the plane, and in five-star hotels.
  • In Scandinavia, people climb on a chair just before midnight and jump off as the clock strikes – jumping forward into the New Year, and – because their feet aren’t touching the ground – leaving behind any evil spirits (or viruses?).
  • In Ireland and Scotland, the ‘first foot’ across your door dictates whether it will be a good year. If the first person to enter your house is a tall, dark, handsome man, you’ll have a good year – as long as he’s bearing gifts of salt, coal, bread or whiskey. If it’s a short, blonde woman, you’re in for a rough 12 months.
  • And on the subject of feet – once the clock has struck, make sure you take your first step with your right foot – literally ‘starting the year off on the right foot’.
  • The Chinese ritually sweep the old year out of their homes. Yes, actual sweeping with a broom.
  • In Germany and Scandinavia, people drop smelted metal (usually lead) into water, and predict their fortunes for the coming year from the shape of the resulting blob. You can also use candle wax, which is much safer. It’s a kind of Rorschach test that can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Greeks hang an onion by the front door on New Year’s Eve as a symbol of rebirth. Some even tap their children on the head with an onion on New Year’s morning.
  • Mexicans hang a fluffy toy lamb on their doors – definitely cuter than an onion.
  • Holding money in your hand as the clock strikes 12 is believed to ensure a prosperous year. The more you hold, the greater your prosperity. Well, duh!


Water is – for very obvious reasons – a standard in cleansing rituals.

  • In Thailand, throwing water at people signifies cleansing them of the baggage of the old year.
  • In Scotland, where New Year’s Eve (or Hogmanay) is a big deal, it’s traditional to swim at midnight – and it’s flippin’ chilly in Scotland at midnight in December.
  • In Brazil, and many other parts of South America, where it’s at least warmer, it’s good luck to jump over seven waves as the clock strikes 12. For even better luck, wear white, and offer flowers to the sea goddess Lamanja. If the flowers drift back to you it means the goddess did not accept your offering, which could mean you’re in for a rough year.

New Year’s clothes

In some cultures it’s traditional to wear new clothes for the start of the New Year, and – in some places – the colour is important. In China it’s red for luck, of course, but in Colombia and many other South American countries it’s white – also for luck – or at least outerwear is. Even more interestingly, many Latin American countries have developed choosing New Year’s Eve underwear into a fine art – perhaps a science.

  • Wear red underwear for romance and passion (with or without love).
  • Pink underwear guarantees luck in love (with passion and romance, I would guess).
  • Yellow underwear will bring wealth.
  • Green underwear has no specific domain, but it is said to ensure better luck than the previous year.
  • Blue brings good health.
  • And white underwear will guarantee peace, joy and happiness.
  • Black underwear is worn by people who want bad luck in the New Year – or who are so confident of getting lucky in the present year that they probably won’t be wearing any when the clock strikes 12.

Sound and light

Fireworks have been associated with New Year for millennia as they are thought to terrify away evil spirits. Well, that may be true or not, but they definitely do terrify pets, and even some people. Even scarier, many people use New Year’s Eve as an opportunity to ‘dispose of’ expired emergency flares. I wouldn’t want to be in trouble off a popular seaside resort on New Year’s Eve. Anyhow – it’s illegal, as is setting off fireworks without a permit, so resist the temptation. And some people even consider the discharging of firearms to be a joyful way to bring in the New Year. It isn’t!

Here are some more acceptable sound and light options from around the world.

  • The banging of pots and pans, blowing of vuvuzelas and hooting serve the same purpose as firecrackers, and are safer and slightly less annoying to non-participants.
  • In the Philippines, people turn on all the lights in the house on New Year’s Eve to keep evil spirits away. At midnight, once the spirits have returned to whence they came, it’s safe to turn the lights off. Then you can open the doors to let out any bad spirits left in the house from the previous year. Don’t question this too much – it’s not an exact science.
  • In Japan, Buddhists ring a bell 108 times to ensure that they go into the New Year cleansed.
  • The Chinese usually burn red candles for luck.
  • In parts of the USA, burning a bayberry candle brings luck throughout the year, but only if it is lit in the Old Year and burns itself out naturally in the New Year. (Real bayberry candles are hard to get, so bayberry-scented candles are mostly used now.)
  • In Ecuador, a great New Year’s tradition is to burn the Old Year – the Año Viejo. This is done by making (or buying) a straw effigy (similar to the guy traditionally burned at Guy Fawkes) and setting it alight at midnight. Many people make their effigies to resemble unpopular politicians, so there is a chance that orange paint will feature prominently this year. Or – even better – effigies of the Coronavirus.
  • And one sound we always associate with New Year is the singing of ‘Auld Land Syne’ – and to the opening question: ‘Should old acquaintance be forgot?’ the answer is a resounding ‘Maybe!’ New Year is a time of reflection – so it’s a time to rekindle good relationships and to remember ‘auld acquaintances’ who are no longer with us. (In China and Chile many people spend New Year’s Eve in cemeteries partying around the graves of their loved ones.) But New Year is also about throwing out the old to make room for the new so, if you are hanging onto baggage from a toxic relationship, this is the time to let it go. You could make like the Ecuadorians, and burn the person in effigy, but please note: that means figuratively burning them, not literally. Burning people is illegal as well as immoral.

Food and drink for New Year

For many people, New Year is about partying, and partying means food and drink, but there are some special dishes associated with a successful transition to a New Year.

  • Jews eat apples with honey to ensure a sweet year.
  • Eating pork on New Year’s Day is traditional in China, mainly because it is considered a meat of prosperity and luxury. In the southern states of the USA, it’s usually eaten with leafy green veggies and black beans, making it quite a balanced meal. Interestingly, in Saratoga Springs (also USA) this tradition has given rise to a cuter, vegan-friendly, version. Local confectioners manufacture pretty pink peppermint pigs that are traditionally smashed with a small hammer. Visitors to your home are then invited to eat a piece, sharing in the sweetness of the New Year.
  • In Latin America, eating lentils at midnight on New Year’s Eve is lucky. (Actually, eating lentils any time is lucky, as they are good for you.)
  • In Germany, round or ring-shaped food, especially doughnuts, signify the cyclical nature of time. And the fact that some of the doughnuts are filled with mustard or chilli instead of jam illustrates that, no matter how many coins you leave outside the door, and no matter what the melted lead indicates, life can be unpredictable.
  • Spaniards (and Mexicans and Filipinos) eat 12 grapes at midnight – one for each stroke of the clock – to ensure good luck for each of the 12 months of the following year.
  • No New Year’s celebration would be complete without the sound of popping corks. In Russia, people write a wish on paper, burn it, put the ashes in a glass of bubbly and drink it. Seems a waste of good Cap Classique to me.

Twice as nice – the Kaapse Klopse

One New Year’s Day is not enough to contain the exuberance of Capetonians. The tradition of Tweede Nuwejaar dates back to colonial times when slaves were given the day off while their masters slept off their hangovers. Yes, it was their one day off. So they celebrated it by taking ownership of the streets, singing, dancing and dressing up in colourful clothes. I still remember when the Klopse would – literally – take over (some of) the streets of Cape Town but that’s all changed. It’s now become a bit of a spectator sport with teams competing for trophies in stadiums, but the tradition has expanded internationally with reciprocity between the Klopse and other Creole festivals across the world, and it’s a proud part of our cultural heritage.

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