Quick question: What will your wardrobe be on New Year’s Eve?Nice dress?Black tie?How about your, ahem, underwear?If you lived in parts of South America, it wouldn’t even be a question. In Sao Paulo, La Paz, and other spots, people don brightly colored underpants to ring in the New Year—red if they’re looking for love, and yellow for money.
No matter what we wear, though, New Year signifies a new beginning. Flipping open a fresh calendar, with its 12 pristine, as-yet-unmarked months, is perhaps one of the most universally hopeful acts we humans perform: finally, a chance to shrug off a year’s worth of worries, conflicts, and mistakes; finally, a chance to start over.
It’s no wonder we all welcome the holiday with such enthusiasm. In the U.S. (and in lots of other countries), the event is celebrated with fireworks and parades, carousing and toasts. Some cultures, though, have more unusual ways of ushering in the New Year.
At midnight on New Year’s Eve, it’s customary in Spain to quickly eat 12 grapes (or uvas)—one at each stroke of the clock. Each grape supposedly signifies good luck for one month of the coming year. In Madrid, Barcelona, and other Spanish cities, revelers congregate in the main squares to gobble their grapes together and pass around bottles of cava.
It’s a longtime Finnish tradition to predict the coming year by casting molten tin into a container of water, and then interpreting the shape the metal takes after hardening. A heart or ring shape means a wedding in the New Year; a ship forecasts travel; and a pig shape signifies plenty of food.
Effigies of well-known people—called muñecos—are traditionally burned in New Year’s bonfires in Panama. The figures can include everyone from television characters like “Ugly Betty” to political figures like Fidel Castro (last year, Panama’s first Olympic gold medalist, track star Irving Saladin, was burned as a muñeco). The effigies represent the old year; immolating them is meant to drive off evil spirits for a fresh New Year’s start.
During the New Year’s Eve celebration of Hogmanay, “first-footing” is practiced all over Scotland. The custom dictates that the first person to cross the threshold of a home in the New Year should carry a gift for luck (whiskey is the most common). The Scots also hold bonfire ceremonies, most notably in the small fishing village of Stonehaven, where townsmen parade while swinging giant fireballs on poles overhead (supposedly symbols of the sun, to purify the coming year).
During the traditional celebration of Kaliady, still-unmarried women play games to predict who will be wed in the New Year. In one game, a pile of corn is placed before each woman, and a rooster is let go; whichever pile the rooster approaches first reveals who will be the first to marry. In another game, a married woman hides certain items around her house for her unmarried friends to find; the woman who finds bread will supposedly marry a rich husband; the one who finds a ring will marry a handsome one.
Every New Year’s Eve since 1951, a wildly popular TV music show is broadcast in Japan (and on cable in other parts of the world). Called “Kohaku Uta Gassen” (which translates to English as “Red and White Song Battle”), the show pits two teams of celebrity music stars against one another in a series of dramatic individual sing-offs; both judges and the home audience vote to decide whether the white team (made up of men) or the red team (women) wins. While most of the show’s stars are mainly known in Asia, American performers like Paul Simon and Cyndi Lauper have also competed.
Many Danes ring in the New Year by standing on chairs and then jumping off them together at midnight. Leaping into January is supposed to banish bad spirits and bring good luck.
In (leaner) decades past, Estonians followed a custom of trying to eat seven times on New Year’s Day, to ensure abundant food in the coming year. (If a man ate seven times, he was supposed to have the strength of seven men the following year). Modern-day celebrations here, however—especially in the party-hearty capital of Tallinn—tend to revolve as much around alcohol as food.
Central and South America
In Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela, it’s considered lucky to wear special underwear on New Year’s Eve; in cities like Sao Paulo and La Paz, market vendors start displaying brightly colored underpants a few days before the holiday. The most popular colors are red and yellow: red is supposed to bring love in the coming year, and yellow is supposed to bring money.
Round shapes (representing coins) are thought to symbolize prosperity for the coming year in the Philippines; many Filipino families display heaps of round fruits on the dining table for New Year’s Eve. Other families are more particular; they eat exactly 12 fruits at midnight (grapes, which are also eaten at midnight in Spain, are easiest). Still others wear New Year polka dots for luck.