Isn't every day a good day for a fresh start?
In our modern world, New Year's Day is synonymous with January 1st, the first day in the Gregorian calendar. But "New Years" has many dates - in fact, it is celebrated in countless amazing ways across the globe and across cultures.
We decided to dive into new years as it's the one holiday that we all share. Despite many people feeling they have little heritage, no culture, or a sinking realization that they've been dropping tradition over time... New Year's is one tradition that really holds strong. It doesn't need to have religious affiliation, and it doesn't even have to be celebrated - it's a holiday that just is. Observed or not, New Years is a reason to put away the past and prepare for a great future. For some it's the get-togethers that are the most special; for others it's the preparation, the clothes, the rituals, the food, the sounds or the activities. Beyond January 1st, for many cultures, New Years is based on the lunar calendar or the changing of seasons.
A Sweet New Year
Jewish New Year follows the highest of all Jewish High Holidays, Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is when Jews atone for their sins in hopes of starting the new year, Rosh Hashanah, with a fresh start. Rosh Hashanah is celebrated over two nights because of its association with the moon. One of the more interesting customs observed on Rosh Hashanah includes the sounding of the shofar (a ram’s horn) in different ways for many reasons, including to introduce the different stages of the new year and as a reminder to continuously improve oneself.
Our friend Julie remembers, "When I was little, I loved going to synagogue because we got to sing songs and play games. We also got to go out the week before and choose a new outfit for synagogue. As I got older, what I looked forward to was the family meals. Lunch was always with my grandma, eating schnitzel. The kids always used to have a contest to see who could eat the most schnitzel. Dinner was always at my other grandmas, which was always a large dinner where all the cousins could play. The house would always smell of challah because the big tradition was to eat the challah and apples with honey - to represent our hopes to bring in a sweet new year. The menu is such a symbolic component of the holiday. We alway had Myron Szimmis (carrots in a honey sauce) with roast beef, and then honey cake and apple strudel for dessert."
Nowruz, which coincides with the Spring Equinox, is the Iranian New Year. It is a combination of two Persian words that mean “new day.” Before the celebration, members of the household prepare a table of 7 fruits or spices to symbolize sunrise and the spice of life, love and affection, and patience and age. Traditional food for Nowruz includes sweets such as baklava and a special noodle soup. Among other traditions, some Iranians place a mirror on the table as a symbol for people to reflect on the past year.
Sophie, who is Ismaili, remembers going to Khane (mosque) for Nowruz and enjoying a celebratory drink, with sherbet and cake after the service. But now as a busy parent she appreciates how her in-laws make Nowruz special for her children by making them sherbet and cake to honour the holiday, even if they are just celebrating from home.
Several Days of Celebration
Many New Year’s celebrations stretch across several days, like the Burmese, Thai and Hindu New Year. The Chinese New Year is the longest, lasting 15 days.
The Balinese welcome the new year by spending the entire day in absolute silence. That’s much different from the Burmese, who celebrate the new year with a three-to-four-day-long water festival. Our friend Larah remembers getting together as a child with her father's Burmese community for a Water Festival. She recalls dousing people with freezing cold water balloons and enjoying tons of delicious food. She admits to never paying attention to what they were talking about, but always remembered it fondly. Turns out that was Burmese New Year!
Larah likely didn't associate the Water Festival with New Years because Chinese New Year was also a huge part of her family's annual traditions. They would celebrate with the beautiful set of rituals her grandmother carried with her from China to Burma to the USA, to practice with her children and grandchildren in Boston. She remembers, "we would fold money or paper into boats and burn them so it would go to our ancestors, so they could have a car or fortune, and we would throw alcohol on top too. My grandmother would show us how to bow with candles and light incense. As additional offering, there would be a plate for each deceased relative on the table." Later to be chastised by more modern Asian friends that "nobody does that anymore", Larah realized that her grandmother's rituals had not changed since the 1940's. We find it quite impressive, and a gift, that this woman was able to maintain tradition for decades, across multiple immigrations, and several generations.
Hindu New Year, otherwise known as the Festival of Lights, falls between mid-October to mid-November, depending on the moon’s cycle. Celebrations last for a total of five days with Diwali, the third day, being the most important day of the festival. On this day, observers say special prayers to several gods and goddesses and scatter lit candles and small clay lamps throughout the house.
Unique Traditions Across the World
Eastern Orthodox new year, or "Old New Year" is in early January based on the Julian calendar, and focuses on spending time with family. Western Australia’s Aboriginal tribe of Murador celebrates New Year’s on October 30. Enkutatash in Ethiopia, is observed on September 11, symbolic of growth of the perennial Leucanthemum vulgare flower after the rainy season. The Thais have a custom of pouring water on the elders of society in order to receive blessings for their new year in April. And having just passed in August, based on the solar calendar, was Islamic Hijri to commemorate the migration of their Prophet Muhammad and celebrate with traditions like eating different foods throughout the day to symbolize their hopes a clean (white milk), blessed (green vegetables), and sweet (almond tea with honey) new year.
The traditions for how people throughout Europe, Africa and Latin America celebrate January 1st are amazing - but we'll get to that in a few months. Until then, we found it quite interesting to see the similarities of customs, traditions, and superstitions of cultures across the world for ringing in New Years with reflection, optimism, and sweetness.
Do you have a special tradition for New Years? Let us know in the comments below.