Traditions Around the World that Celebrate the New Year


New Years is a global event that rolls around the world as each time zone strikes midnight. And though we all share the holiday, it is celebrated in many different ways, some with traditions that are thousands of years old.

New Years in Samoa is all about family, and it is one time of year when Samoans who have immigrated elsewhere return to the islands. Homes are decorated with flowers and colored papers. The party goes on for days and includes traditional dance, special New Years’ foods, and giving each other inexpensive gifts.

Samoa used to be one of the last places to greet the new year, but a year ago they redrew the International Date Line, making it now one of the first places to see 2013. While Samoa wanted to be on the same date as New Zealand, American Samoa wanted to stay on the same date as the United States. So the date line now goes between the two island groups, meaning that with the help of a boat to take you the 100 miles between them, you could celebrate New Years twice on two successive days.

New Years in Bulgaria is known as St. Basil’s Day or “Survaki.” The celebrations last all week featuring processions, musical festivals, carnivals, and sports. Traditionally they hold a feast on New Year’s Eve, which includes a pig head and a flat cake prepared with eggs and cheese layered between filo pastry. It is filled with silver coins and fortunes on slips of paper that the dinner guests find in their portion.

In Japan people hold “forget-the-year parties” to say goodbye to the problems of the past year. Misunderstandings and grudges are forgiven and houses are scrubbed. At midnight, Buddhist temples strike their gongs 108 times to expel 108 types of human weakness. I knew there were a lot of human weaknesses, but had no idea there were 108.

New Years in Central America means fireworks. In the days leading up to the new year, the cities and towns are packed with firework sellers. At the stroke of midnight everyone sets them off, and the booms around the countryside can continue for nearly an hour. It reminds me of the New Years I spent in Ivory Coast . We heard celebrations of fireworks and gunfire around the city throughout the night and sporadically for the next several nights.

In Scotland New Years is known as Hogmany, which comes from the Scots word for the last day of the year. Many Scottish towns celebrate Hogmany with fire. People in one village construct two-foot globes of chicken wire filled with combustible material, light them, and swing them over their heads as they parade through the town (what could go wrong?) finally tossing them into the ocean. Another Scottish town settled by Vikings celebrates by building and burning a full-sized Viking ship. The capital of Edinburgh has a huge festival of concerts and fireworks. In the tradition of “first-footing,” you try to be the first person to cross the threshold of a friend or neighbor, bringing symbolic gifts such as salt, coal, shortbread, whisky, and fruit cake. We owe Auld Lang Syne to the Scots, as it was written by the Scottish poet Robert Burns.

Christians in the Democratic Republic of Congo spend the whole night in church, having Bible studies and celebrating with music. Then they go home and, without stopping for sleep, begin preparing a feast for January 1. The meal typically includes fried rice, beans, casava leaves with vegetables, fried fish, chicken, and more. The whole extended family spends the day together, eating, sharing stories, and singing.

The choice of January 1 as the beginning of the year is arbitrary. Different cultures, such as Chinese, Jewish, and Muslim, observe different dates to start the year. And until 1751 England and all British dominions observed the start of the year on March 25. But today January 1 has become a near-universal holiday celebrated in every time zone around the world. That’s why one of my New Year’s traditions is to go to news websites on January 1 to find a video montage of people around the world welcoming in the new year. It is one of the few things that brings us all together.

Photo 1 Credit: Tony Hisgett

Photo 2 Credit: Saaleha Bamjee

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