Unique New Year traditions all over the world

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How do people ring in the new year in other countries? The ways are as varied as can be. But looking closer into these customs, New Year rituals actually just fall within two categories: Symbolic activities to purge or scare away bad things (to start fresh), or activities that attract good luck and abundance. Examples of these are setting off fireworks (to scare bad things away) and big feasts and parties (to attract abundance).

To make it more fun, we thought we’d share a few unusual new year traditions from various countries you may not have heard of. Here are some of them:

Canada’s Polar Bear Swim

Let’s start with New Year’s traditions right here in Canada. Parties, food, drinks and fireworks are common elements of New Year’s celebrations.

But did you know that Canada is also known for the annual Polar Bear Swim? This event was started by Peter Pantages in Vancouver, BC in 1920. Pantages and a couple of his friends jumped into the frigid waters of the English Bay on New Year’s Day. Today, it is held in other provinces like Ontario (Toronto), Nova Scotia, Alberta, Manitoba (Steinbach), and some cities in the US. Participants say that it starts off their year right since the icy dip gives them an adrenaline rush that clears their head (a cleansing for the mind and soul. But not recommended for people with heart problems). The event is now also a fundraising activity where participants pledge donations for a good cause.

Spain and Portugal’s 12 grapes

In these countries, people eat 12 grapes on New Year’s eve, right when the clock strikes midnight. The 12 grapes represent each month of the year. The challenge is to finish all 12 before the final chime of the clock. Successful grape-eaters, granting that they don’t choke, can look forward to great luck and prosperity in the coming year.

Siberia’s planting of the New Year’s Tree

Similar to Canada’s Polar Bear swim, brave divers jump into a frozen lake. However, Siberians take it a step further by planting the yolka (fir) or Siberian New Year Tree. This bone-chilling activity (done sometimes minus the planting of a tree) symbolizes new beginnings or starting over.

The Philippines makes some noise

Filipinos welcome the year literally with a bang! They use firecrackers, horns, music players/sound systems, pots and pans (virtually anything that makes noise) minutes before and during the stroke of midnight signaling the start of the new year. This custom is supposed to drive bad spirits and bad luck away, a tradition influenced by the Chinese.

Filipinos also see round objects as a symbol for money. They serve round foods on New Year’s eve and wear polka dotted clothes to attract wealth and prosperity.

China and Italy sees red

Red is the luckiest colour for Chinese people. Many paint their doors red and wear red on this day (they celebrate New Year usually in February). They also give away small red envelopes containing money to spread good luck. Meanwhile, Italians wear red underwear to be lucky in love in the coming year.

Brazil and the goddess of the sea

Instead of red, Brazilians wear white on the eve of New Year to attract peace and happiness. Some also go to the beach to offer white flowers to the goddess of the sea. White symbolizes purity, while the flower offerings are said to bring prosperity for the coming year.

Scotland’s Hogmanay Festival

Scotland’s Hogmanay goes on for several days. One of its most well-known traditions is the fire festival. In Stonehaven, professionals swing balls of fire over their heads and then toss them into the sea. This is done right before midnight and is supposed to purify people and ward off evil spirits.

Denmark’s smashed plates

For the Danish, the more broken plates you have on your doorstep on New Year’s, the better luck you’ll have in the coming year. People go around and shatter dishes and plates on their friends and loved ones’ doors on December 31st. This is their way of wishing everyone good tidings.

Japan rings in good luck

Throughout Japan, bells are rung 108 times at Buddhist temples on New Year’s eve. The number represents worldly sins and desires according to their religion. By ringing the bells, they are simultaneously purging sins and ringing in good luck.
However you celebrate your New Year, may it bring you joy, happiness and a positive outlook for the coming year!

Happy New Year! Kunghei fatchoy! Feliz Ano Nuevo! Manigong Bagong Taon! с новым годом! Akemashite omedeto gozaimatsu! Godt nytar!
Article updated November 28, 2023.
Sources: How people celebrate New year’s eve in 20 countries around the world, Joanna Fantozzi; 8 New Year traditions from around the world, CBC kids; and Polar bear dips: Canada’s bravest ring in the new year with an icy swim, Jessica Vomiero, Global News; Retrieved December 13, 2018. With thanks to sandra.arbeau@edmontonpolice.ca for additional edits.

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