On New Year’s Eve, which is called Sylvester in German (szilveszter in Hungarian) my family used to celebrate with a large house party. It was a multi-generational event with children allowed to stay up until after midnight. This was partly out of necessity as there were no babysitters free on New Year’s Eve and partly because families wanted to enter the New Year together. In Hungary, the superstitious belief is that whatever you do at midnight will be repeated frequently in the coming year. Thus, celebrating with your nearest family and friends with good food, drink and music was meant to ensure a happy new year.
New Year traditions across the world are often based on centuries-old beliefs about what ensures that we have luck, prosperity and health in the New Year. Pagan symbolism mixed with Christian traditions makes for some of our current New Year celebrations.
Ensuring good fortune in the new year
Fireworks, for example, are not just about enjoying the colourful display to greet the new year but were also part of the pagan belief that one could ward off evil and threats by making as much noise as possible.
In many countries, lucky symbols are displayed with the hope that the coming year will be happier than the last one. One of those symbols is the lucky horseshoe.
The horse has always been considered particularly noble and valuable. In some cultures, it was even worshipped as a sacred animal. To protect the hooves of the valuable animals, horseshoes were invented. Soon, people thought that what protects the horse can also protect them and contribute to their happiness. Thus, if the animals lose a horseshoe and you find it, it would bring luck. Today, one can still see horseshoes over front doors to protect the houses’ inhabitants from misfortune. It is important that the opening of the horseshoe points upwards so that luck does not fall out.
Another superstitious tradition I remember from my childhood is the luck that chimney sweeps are supposed to bring. In the past, the fireplace was the centre of a house, providing warmth in the rooms and where hot meals were prepared. If it was clogged, you could neither heat nor cook. Then the chimney sweep had to come and clean the chimney and the fireplace. So he saved people not only from smoke-filled rooms but also from house fires, because accumulated soot can quickly ignite and trigger a fire.
In many countries seeing a chimney sweep was considered lucky, especially if you get to touch him or the golden button on his jacket. The presence of a chimney sweep provided warmth and safety, which made people happy. Chimney sweeps for people with fireplaces still ensure the safety of homes today for the few who still light indoor fires rather than rely on central heating.
In Europe, for centuries pigs have been considered a symbol of wealth and prosperity. Hence the idea of the piggy bank, which you feed with money and at some point “slaughter” to buy something beautiful from the savings.
The four-leaved clover is another symbol of luck. The protective function of the rare clover comes from the fact that its shape resembles a cross, which symbolised protection and the warding off of evil even before the advent of Christianity. The rarity of the four-leaf clover probably also contributed to it being considered a special plant but, according to superstition, its power works best, when you come across it by chance.
The cult of the horseshoe and clover as good luck bringers goes back to ancient times as people believed that putting a horseshoe in the trough of animals would protect them from diseases. Other people nailed the lucky object to their ships and door frames. The goal was always the same: protection against bad spirits and bad luck.
Other New Year’s traditions
Survakane (Bulgarian: Cypвaкaнe) is a Bulgarian custom used to wish people a prosperous new year. The tradition is performed by the youngest member of the family by gently beating people with a decorated stick, known as a survaknitsa (Bulgarian: сypвaкница) or survachka (Bulgarian: сypвaчка), on New Year’s day, as a measure to ensure health during the year.
Foods for luck
Eating twelve grapes during the countdown to midnight is both a Spanish and Mexican New Year’s tradition (as well as parts of other Latin American countries). In Spain the tradition is to eat a grape for every toll of the bell, totalling a dozen grapes as the clock strikes midnight and tolls 12 times. People come out into the town squares with their dozen grapes, confetti and other party supplies.
Do you think you could eat seven meals in one evening? Estonians believe that eating either seven, nine or twelve meals on New Year’s Day will guarantee you prosperity and luck in the New Year. Of course, you don’t have to actually finish each of the meals. It is also tradition to leave food on your plate for the spirits of ancestors who may visit.
In Hungary, it is customary to eat lentils on New Year’s Day, as that is supposed to ensure prosperity in the coming year. In some countries, millets or rice are eaten with the same hope.
In Denmark as well as in some parts of Germany and the Netherlands, it is traditional at midnight on New Year’s Eve to break dishes against your neighbour’s and friends’ doors. The act is thought to bring good luck and to represent friendship.
Those waking up to large piles of broken china on their doorstep on New Year’s Day can take satisfaction in knowing they are obviously popular and well-loved. Some artistic people or people who consider the breaking of useful objects a waste, create mosaics from the broken pieces.
In some parts of Italy, the New Year’s Tradition is throwing old furniture or pots and pans out of the window. There is the danger of potentially getting whacked with a flying pot, pan, or pieces of old furniture if you walk around at midnight. This custom is practised primarily in regions of Southern Italy and modern-day Naples. The practice of throwing old pots and pans and/or furniture out of your window apparently symbolises getting rid of the old or letting go of the past in order to ready yourself for the new year. A dramatic way to de-clutter!
In other regions of Italy, New Year’s traditions also include firing up the yule log to scare away evil spirits or to provide a warm hearth for the Virgin Mary to warm Baby Jesus. There is also the exploding of fireworks and eating special dishes that symbolise something positive (such as abundance) for the New Year.
The Dutch tradition of dunking
The Netherlands have several traditions when it comes to the New Year. They eat traditional Belgian and Dutch pastries, light fireworks, and play traditional Dutch games such as sjoelen (table shuffleboard). However, the best-known and unusual tradition is the so-called ‘Nieuwjaarsduik’.
Thousands of people wake up early in the morning to put on their bathing suits (and an Unox beanie) and assemble on the beach in Scheveningen along the freezing North Sea. A horn sounds when they take off their warm clothes and run to the ocean to take a dip in the cold water. Just the thought of this gives me the shivers.
Onions and ice cream?
In Greece, the onion is a symbol of growth and rebirth and therefore is at the centre of one of the Greek Orthodox New Year’s traditions. On New Year’s Eve, an onion is hung on the front door to make sure the following year will be one of happiness, prosperity, and new growth.
A New Year’s tradition practised by some Swiss is dropping a scoop of ice cream on the ground at the New Year. The act seemingly ensures that your year will be filled with luck and wealth.
While many New Year’s traditions in Ireland have faded over the centuries, some are still practised. Among the ones I hear from Irish friends are doing a deep clean of your house before the New Year and setting a place at the table or leaving the door unlatched for a lost loved one. Some people also open up their back door to usher out the Old Year before opening the front door to welcome the New Year.
I know I will have a very large plate of lentil soup on New Year’s Day. I am not superstitious but one never knows.
Whatever your family tradition is, I hope it brings you luck for a New Year with health, wealth and happiness!