Hanging up onions to scarecrow parades...New Year around the world

Mike Hammond making a splash at the White Wells spa bath on Ilkley Moor on New Year’s Day, 2009
Mike Hammond making a splash at the White Wells spa bath on Ilkley Moor on New Year’s Day, 2009

BEFORE the pandemic it was traditional for pubs to be packed on New Year’s Eve. Some sold tickets in advance and provided food and entertainment. An extension allowed the merriment to go on after midnight as customers, usually in a tipsy state, went round kissing one another, finishing up with a chorus of Auld Lang Syne.

What Robbie Burns, the song’s writer in 1788, would have thought of these renditions is anybody’s guess. For those preferring a quieter evening in their living-room, perhaps seeing the New Year in with Jools Holland on TV might suffice. But traditional New Year celebrations, all over the world, go back centuries.

Scotland celebrates December 31 more than Christmas. Hogmanay is when fireworks are set off and parties take place. A feature of this event is ‘first footing’ which I remember from my Yorkshire childhood in the 1950s. If the ‘first foot’ into the house after midnight is by a tall, dark man, the household will have good luck.

The spirit of Hogmanay is to welcome friends and strangers with dancing, music and kissing. The Scots also drank a spiced ‘hot pint’ which was a version of the English Wassail drunk in parts of the country. It was a toast to their neighbours’ prosperity.

Various countries have their own traditions. In Ecuador citizens parade through towns with scarecrows resembling politicians and famous people. At the stroke of midnight they’re set on fire, to cleanse the world of everything bad and make room for good in the future year. In Brazil they light candles and throw white flowers into water as an offering to Yemoja, Queen of the Ocean. In Spain 12 grapes must be eaten on the stoke of midnight, one for each chime, to bring good fortune and prosperity. This tradition, dating back to the late 19th century, was devised by vine growers in the Alicante region who wished to sell more grapes towards the end of the year. Cava is often served to guests for a toast.

In Denmark china is thrown at a neighbour’s front door on New Year’s Eve which is seen as getting rid of aggression and ill will. Greeks view the pomegranate as a symbol of fertility, life and abundance; just after midnight it’s the custom to smash pomegranates against your front door; the more seeds that splatter, the greater luck you will have. The Greeks also believe the onion is a symbol of rebirth so they hang an onion on their front door to encourage growth throughout the year. In Germany they use the flame of a candle to melt a small piece of lead and pour it into a container of cold water. The shape the lead takes determines their fate for the forthcoming year. In Japan Buddhist temples toll their bells on New Year’s Eve 107 times, and a further time when the clock strikes 12. This dispels the 108 demons residing in each person, and cleanses them of last year’s sins. Russians write down wishes then burn them with the flame of a candle and drink the ashes in a glass of Champagne. There is also the custom of two people representing Father Frost and the Ice Maiden, who plunge more than 100ft into the freezing waters of the Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world, and take with them a New Year Tree spruce for good fortune. People from all over the world take part in this ceremony.

In Italy it is the tradition to wear red underwear, as red is a symbol of fertility. The Japanese welcome in the New Year with a bowl of soda noodles; it is believed that the shape and length of the noodles symbolise a long and healthy life.

In Turkey it’s good luck to sprinkle salt on the doorstep at midnight to encourage peace and prosperity. In Ireland if a single woman sleeps with mistletoe under her pillow she will find her future husband in her dreams. In Armenia ‘good wishes’ are kneaded into every batch of bread baked on the last day of the year to bring good luck.

In Holland food vendors sell doughnut-like balls, a custom going back to ancient Germanic tribes when it was believed the goddess Perchia would slit open the bellies of those who had not indulged sufficiently in Yuletide cheer. Fat from the dough would protect them by causing her sword to slide about.

The Swiss consume dollops of whipped cream, symbolising the richness of the year to come. In India and Pakistan rice is a symbol of prosperity. The early American colonists fired gunshots into the air, as they do in Thailand to frighten off demons. Today, Americans gather in New York’s Times Square for the midnight ball drop. But in many countries they wait for church bells to signify the start of the New Year. Some brave souls, like those on Yorkshire’s east coast, plunge into the cold sea on New Year’s Day to cleanse potential murky waters of the future.

New Year is a time for looking back and assessing life, to resolve to make amends and do better. The Babylonians, about 4,000 years ago, were perhaps the first people to make New Year Resolutions. They held a 12-day religious festival at the start of their new year in mid-March, when crops were planted and promised the gods they would pay their debts and return any objects they’d borrowed. If they kept their word the gods would bestow favours on them. If not, they were out of favour.