New Year’s traditions are unique to their country of origin, drawing upon specific objects, cuisines, and celebrations that are inherent to their culture. The earliest recorded New Year’s festivities date back to ancient Babylon, where the first new moon following the vernal equinox marked the start of the new year. Babylonians celebrated with a religious festival called Akuti, a multi-day festival that honored the rebirth of the natural world.
Over the years, calendars fell out of sync with the sun, prompting the start of the year to fall on different days, until Julius Caesar introduced the Julian calendar in 45 B.C. Caesar instituted January 1st as the first day of the year, and the calendar closely resembled that of the modern Gregorian calendar. Today, most festivities begin on December 31st—the last day of the Gregorian calendar—and continue into the early hours of January 1st.
Whether it’s sharing a meal with family and friends or throwing old furniture out the window, each of these customary, luck-filled New Year’s traditions derives from a unique origin. Below are thirteen of the most fascinating celebrations from around the world. Discover their historical significance and the traditional objects each draws upon to create a truly unique representation of their heritage.
1. Wearing White (Brazil)
In Brazil, the new year is regarded as a time to reflect upon the past and make new resolutions for the coming year. Everyone wears white because the color signifies luck, prosperity, and is meant to ward off bad spirits. As the tradition goes, revelers gather on the beaches donning white garb where they jump seven waves—a lucky number in Brazilian culture—for good fortune and throw flowers into the water as an offering to Lemanjá, the goddess of the sea.
2. Spring Festival (China)
The Lunar New Year is the most important holiday in China, and millions of people around the world participate in the celebration. Also known as the Spring Festival, this 15-day long celebration has a different date every year, following the Lunar Calendar instead of the Gregorian Calendar.
The Chinese New Year is rife with many different traditions. Homes and cities are lined with red decorations—a color that symbolizes good luck and good fortune—such as red lanterns to ward off bad luck and jianzhi, red paper cutouts that hang on walls. Fireworks are set off on both New Year’s Eve and again the next morning as a means to ward off negative energy. Children also receive red envelopes that contain money, which is considered a way to symbolically transfer fortune from elder to youth. In addition, there are parades, lion dances, decorative dragon statues, traditional food, and imperial performances to cap off the celebration.
3. Carrying Suitcases (Colombia)
Colombia boasts an array of New Year’s traditions intended to bring fortune and prosperity to those who participate. Partygoers carry empty suitcases at midnight in hopes of inducing a year rife with travel. They also bear money in hand to attract financial security and stability in the coming year. Lentils are believed to bring luck and affluence, so many bake them into their rice or carry them in their pockets.
4. Smashing Plates (Denmark)
One of the most popular New Year’s traditions in Denmark involves 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.
Other 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.
5. Burning Effigies (Ecuador)
In Ecuador, burning effigies signifies burning the año viejo, or “old year.” Ecuadorians create large effigies in the likeness of politicians, pop culture figures, and other icons and set them on fire at midnight. It symbolizes the cleansing of bad energy from the previous twelve months, and is meant to bring about good fortune.
The tradition originated in 1895, when a yellow fever epidemic hit Guayaquil and forced many to burn coffins packed with clothes of the infected. The tradition has since taken on a more lighthearted, optimistic nature and fills the streets of Ecuador in a celebratory manner today.
6. Festival of Saint Basil (Greece)
The Greek celebration of the New Year is also known as the Festival of Saint Basil, honoring the founder of the Greek Orthodox Church. Each year, there are a number of celebrations that take place as a means to attract luck and bring prosperity. An onion, for example, is traditionally hung on the door of homes as a symbol of rebirth, and on New Year’s Day, parents wake children by tapping them on the head with the onion.
Another customary Greek tradition is consuming Vasilopita, or Saint Basil’s cake. This cake is baked with a silver or gold coin inside, and whoever finds the coin in their slice is considered especially lucky in the coming year.
7. Rosh Hashanah (Israel)
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is celebrated in many countries around the world. The holiday takes place in the fall, during the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. During the night the holiday begins, a festival candle blessing is recited as well as the Kiddush, blessing over wine. Those celebrating enjoy apples and other fruits dipped in honey, which symbolizes sweetness and blessings in the coming year. Throughout the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the shofar is sounded. This instrument is made of a ram’s horn, and is meant to symbolize humility standing before God.
8. Oshogatsu (Japan)
Oshogatsu, the Japanese New Year, is one of the most important holidays in Japan. Like other New Year’s celebrations, it symbolizes renewal, bidding farewell to problems of the previous year through a variety of customs and celebrations. In December, “year-forgetting parties” known as Bonekai take place. On December 31st, Buddhist temples strike their gongs 108 times; each ring representing one of the 108 earthly temptations a person must overcome to achieve nirvana and expel wrong deeds and ill luck of the past year.
On New Year’s Day, common ways of celebrating the holiday include taking the day off work, wearing traditional kimonos, and consuming soba noodles, which signify longevity. Children receive otoshidama, which are small gifts with money inside. Another customary Japanese practice is to send letters to friends and family, which are specially marked to be delivered on January 1st.
9. Oud en Nieuw (The Netherlands)
The Dutch New Year’s traditions are marked with fireworks and fantastic explosions. Fireworks are triggered across major cities for hours at a time, described by many as “chaotic bursts of light.” Cars and Christmas trees are also burned as a means to purse the old and welcome the new.
Another Dutch New Year’s tradition is consuming oliebollen, which translates to “oil balls.” Similar to donuts, these bite-sized balls of fried dough dipped in powdered sugar are sold on street corners and shopping centers. As a finale to the celebration, swimmers jump into the freezing waters of the North Sea to celebrate New Year’s Day.
10. First-Footing (Scotland)
Scotland’s Hogmanay celebration is one of the most rousing celebrations in the world. Hogmanay comprises street entertainment, fire festivals, concerts, street festivals, and more celebratory acts, but is also known for its tradition of “first-footing.” According to the custom, the first person who crosses the threshold of a person’s home should bring a gift of luck. Traditionally, this gift was a coal for the fire or shortbread.
After the ban of the Christmas holiday in Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries under the reign of Oliver Cromwell, Hogmanay became even more important, as it was an outlet for Scottish citizens to figuratively chase away the darkness with light, warmth, and festivities.
11. Consuming Grapes (Spain)
The most prominent New Year’s tradition in Spain involves consuming grapes. Each year, Spaniards partake in the annual tradition of eating one grape for every toll of the clock at midnight. The twelve grapes consumed are meant to represent good luck for each month of the year. Some even prepare their grapes by peeling and seeding beforehand to ensure they’re easy to consume.
The tradition is believed to have originated at the turn of the 20th century in the southern part of the country where makers of wine worked to boost demand for grapes in the winter.
12. Dropping Ice Cream (Switzerland)
In celebration of the New Year, the Swiss channel good luck, wealth, and abundance by dropping a dollop of ice cream on the floor at midnight. They also line the streets in colorful costumes and perform symbolic ceremonies intended to chase away negative spirits.
13. Watching the Ball Drop (United States)
New Year’s traditions in America derive from a variety of origins and beliefs. After fireworks were banned in New York City in the early 20th century, event organizers arranged to have a 700-pound ball lowered down a pole. Since, it’s become a tradition to watch the ball start dropping and count down the year’s final seconds.
Americans also sing the tune “Auld Lang Syne,” which translates to “old long ago.” The song spread beyond Scotland and the English-speaking world, bringing about a sense of belonging and fellowship. In the South, a popular dish is known as “Hoppin’ John,” which features black-eyed peas — believed to symbolize coins and represent economic prosperity in the coming years.
Cultures around the world ring in the new year in a variety of ways, with each custom intended to instill hope, optimism, and luck throughout their communities for the year ahead. Centuries-long traditions have been passed down from generation to generation in the form of festive decor, baking a special New Year’s dish, or performing a superstitious tradition when the clock strikes midnight. Let each culture’s traditions guide good fortune and prosperity in your life this coming year.