There’s nothing like the anticipation of a new year and new beginnings. In the United States, New Year’s Eve is often celebrated with Champagne, dancing, loved ones, and watching the ball drop in Times Square, but the holiday takes on many different forms in different cultures. From breaking plates when the clock strikes midnight to epic water gun fights, here are seven unique New Year’s traditions around the world.
Spain – Eating 12 Grapes
If you’re traveling to Spain to celebrate New Year’s, then make sure you have some grapes on hand. While some people exchange a New Year’s Eve kiss for good luck, as the clock strikes midnight in Spain, it’s custom to eat 12 grapes. The superstitious tradition is said to prevent bad luck in the coming year — by eating a grape for every stroke of midnight once the New Year rings in, Spaniards believe they’re setting their luck for the 12 months ahead. The “miraculous grapes” must be eaten quickly within those first 12 strokes, so if you take part, beware of choking hazards. Though Spain is credited for the tradition, the custom is also common in many Latin American countries, which use other round fruits instead of grapes.
Denmark – Breaking a Glass or Plate
If you wake up in Copenhagen to a pile of smashed pottery on your doorstep New Year’s Day, congratulations are in order. The Danes consider smashing crockery to be good luck, and go out throwing plates to bring New Year’s blessings on their friends and family. Just grab a broom and watch your step. No one is precisely sure how this tradition originated, but one guess is it involved akvavit (a type of strong liquor) — and lots of it.
Japan – Eating Noodles and Ringing Bells
Japan has a wealth of traditions welcoming the New Year, a celebration known as Ōmisoka, but toshikoshi-soba (buckwheat noodles) are by far the tastiest. “Year-crossing noodles” are long, symbolizing longevity, but also easily cut, symbolizing cutting ties and letting go of the past year. Other observances include temple bells chiming 108 times. Known as joya no kane, the bells represent the spiritual cleansing of the 108 worldly passions in Buddhist tradition.
In Japan, Buddhist temples ring their bells on New Year’s Eve 108 times. This annual tradition is known as Joya-no-Kane. In the Buddhist religion, there are 108 potential sins that you can commit, so ringing the bells is a way of cleansing yourself of those sins as you enter the new year.
China – Painting the Town Red
If you’ve ever heard the expression “paint the town red,” it might come as a surprise that China takes the phrase quite literally. In China, many people paint their front doors red on the Lunar New Year since the color symbolizes good luck and good fortune. By painting your front door red or adding red ornaments, you’re encouraging prosperity and good fortune for the coming year. To celebrate Lunar New year, there will be plenty of fireworks (a Chinese invention) along with dragon dances and lots of housekeeping to clear out the old spirits and make everything tidy and fresh for the future. The lucky color red is everywhere — and if you’re indeed lucky, an older relative or boss will slip you a nice red envelope filled with cash.
Thailand – Water Fights
Thailand’s New Year’s festival is nothing if not colorful and wet. Celebrated on April 13 (and the days surrounding it) according to the Thai calendar, the holiday has strong religious origins and began with purifying Buddha statues with water. While the sacred symbolism remains, with many Thais visiting wats (temples) and merit-making, it’s also a tourist-friendly free-for-all of splashing, celebrating, and partying in the streets. (Pro tip: Arrive with a laid-back attitude and a towel.)
Estonia – Eating Seven Meals
Pack your comfy pants for New Year’s Eve in Estonia, a time for “lucky meals” — typically seven or more in a single day. Tradition says that each meal one eats that day gives the strength of seven, or nine, or even twelve men for the coming year. These numbers are considered especially auspicious (as long as you aren’t counting calories). Popular items include wild boar and marzipan. Since you should also leave something on the plate for spirits and ancestors, perhaps you won’t walk away from the table too full.
Scotland – Hogmanay
In addition to enormous torchlit processions, Scots get the New Year off on the right foot with the tradition of first-footing. Traditionally the luckiest “first foot” to cross the door after the stroke of midnight should be a dark-haired male (perhaps in response to those blond Viking invaders). Today, friends or family who cross the door can bring luck. If the Hogmanay hangover the next day is crushing, join a thousand or more costumed Edinburghians for Loony Dook, where the hearty partiers throw themselves into the frigid waters of the Firth (estuary) of the River Forth.