Traditions on an Ahistorical Day

New Year’s has no religious or material significance, but that hasn’t stopped cultures around the world from celebrating in sometimes bizarre ways,


Envato Elements

Fireworks are a common New Year’s tradition, but the uncommon traditions are can get rather odd.

Ryan Nash, Staff Writer

Ask yourself this, why do we celebrate holidays? Everyone knows why we celebrate Christmas, Easter, Halloween, and so on, but one holiday stands form the rest: New Years Eve.

As it turns out, nothing is inherently special about December.

Easter, for example, has both material and religious significance: it represents the onset of spring, and to Christians, it celebrates the rebirth of Christ. News Years Eve, on the other hand, has none. We celebrate it simply because the Gregorian calendar has a number change.

I began this piece with curiosity as to why we celebrate News Year’s, whether for material or religious purposes, but as it turns out there isn’t much of one. We celebrate, it seems, as an excuse to throw a party.

Nevertheless, the celebratory customs as each new year dawns around the world are rich.

We often associate years with events or people, such as one might associate 2020 with Trump, Macron, Fauci, and so on. Panama shows this pattern by making effigies of popular politicians and celebrities, called muñecos or Judas Dolls, and burning them in large bonfires.These effigies are often made of recycled materials, such as banana leaves, coconut shells, old pillows, and whatever else is in the can and can be burned. Sometimes, small competitions between neighbors occur over who has the best effegy. This fascinating tradition has managed to spread into other Latin American countries, as far as Ecuador.

Now, imagine you’re walking down a dark alley in Copenhagen, Denmark. Suddenly, as the clock strikes, dishes and plates start flying out of windows while people cheer and yell. No, you aren’t being attacked by dish demons — instead, this is a normal Danish tradition. The Danes have the unique tradition of throwing old plates and dishes out into the street. Some even buy tableware just for the occasion. Additionally, many go out of their way to throw plates at their friends and families dwellings as a way to give them good luck. The more plates at your door in the morning, they believe, the more luck you’ll have in the new year. 

From the perspective of someone not from the United States, the idea of dropping a giant ball on New Years might seem strange, but there is something both groups would find strange. Dropping a giant pickle, actually two. Two separate towns in the USA do such a thing. In Mount Olive, North Carolina, a three foot pickle descends down from a flagpole on New Year’s Eve. If Mount Olive rings a bell, that’s because it is the home of the Mt. Olive food brand, which is partly responsible for the diversity of pickles you see at supermarkets. Even closer to home, the perfectly named Dill, Pennsylvania, drops an anthropomorphic pickle every year on December 31st. 

A better known tradition, but equally fascinating, is the Twelve Grapes, a widespread Spanish (and in recent years Latin American) tradition of eating one grape for every strike the clock makes at midnight. It has been going on for a surprisingly long time, starting in the Puerta del Sol square in Madrid in 1895. Since then, every year city squares are filled with people eating grapes (hopefully at a safe distance this year), and it’s said that each of the grapes represents each month of the year. By eating one, you’ll be lucky that month. 

In Germany, some families celebrate News Years with lead. No, not bullets but rather molten lead. Many cultures have traditions that supposedly can foretell the future, and this medieval, possibly more than a-thousand-year-old,  tradition of lead fortune telling on New Year’s Eve is no different. Known as Bleigiessen, the tradition used to be conducted by dropping a small bit of liquid lead into a source of water, with the form of metal solidifying, determining the future. Much like the lead itself, the predictions are fluid. Some shapes, such as a ball, mean good luck, and others, such as an anchor, mean help is on the way — but generally it’s up to you to interpret the shape. Today, small kits are sold that allow for the tradition to be easily done, and some people have elected to use wax instead out of fears of lead poisoning.

But regardless of how, and even if, you celebrate the arrival of the new year, 2021 is bound to be an improvement on 2020.