Beliefs behind New Year rituals in some cultures

From the resolutions and fireworks to the religious observations, New Year days occupy special places in the hearts of many people, owing to certain beliefs that have transcended down generations of humanity

Ordinarily the New Year day is like every other day. It lasts 24 hours and can be broken down into dusk and dawn, but spiritually-speaking, it is seen in many faiths as the moment that decides what the remainder of the 363 days making up a year would look like. The fact that it is the first day of the week, of the month and of the year, places a burden of optimism or pessimism on certain people over it, and they respond with equal fervor in seeking the face of their creator.

That is why in Nigeria, which is largely a very religious nation, made up of mainly Christians and Muslims, the eve of a New Year ushers in a divided mix of appreciation. While the Muslims are not under the obligation that the New Year Day means the first day of the month following the calendar in Islam, a few of their adherents, all the same, subject themselves to the belief that January 1 means a new dawn. In actual sense, the Islamic calendar sees January 1, 2014 as the twenty eight day of the second month in Islamic calendar.

But in contrast the Christians with their largely universal and adaptable culture begin the ritual of New Year from the eve which is observed in the churches. The idea behind this is to be in a solemn mood as the eve transmutes to the New Year Day. Church services conducted usually revolve around presenting oneself to God for guidance and protection all through the New Year. Some also advance their projections in the year and ask God for favours.

One ritual that is common for most people during New Year days is the act of making resolutions. Resolutions are thought necessary to shape one’s life and make atonements for the ills of the past. Some people who hope to break off a bad habit or practice usually utilise the opportunity of the New Year day to do so, and most times, they also back it up with prayers.

In Nigeria, one fundamental ritual that has followed New Year days over the generations is the practice of using firecrackers to herald the day. This is largely done as a way of celebrating the idea that one survived the ending year against all odds. Some however use firecrackers to ‘send away’ (‘knock out’ in the local parlance) the year especially when it is seen as one that brought some bad fortunes. That is the case for people who either lost loved relatives or got enmeshed in bad business deal. Once the day comes, it is marked with merriment which comes in the form of choice dishes and wine, with close family members and friends who would be spending a national public holiday that comes with the event.

Elsewhere, New Year days also hold similar significance albeit the fact that it comes at various times following the various time zones in the world.

Beginning with Australians, who are one of the first to witness the New Year day, it starts at midnight when they start to make noise with whistles, rattles, car horns, and church bells to ring in the New Year. In Austria, New Year’s eve is called ‘Sylverterabend’, which is the Eve of Saint Sylvester. They make a spiced punch in honor of the saint.

Decorations and champagne are part of the celebration. Evil spirits of the old year are chased away by the firing of ‘moroars’, called ‘boller’. Midnight mass is attended and trumpets are blown from church towers at midnight, when people kiss and hug one another. Belgium has a similar ritual as their New Year’s eve is called ‘Sint Sylvester Vooranvond’, or Saint Sylvester Eve. People throw parties and at midnight everyone kisses and exchanges good luck greetings. New Year’s Day is called ‘Nieuwjaarrsdag’ and sees children write letters on decorated paper to their parents and god parents.

They also read the letters to them. Natives of the United Kingdom hold dear the custom of ‘first footing’, where the first male visitor to the house, after midnight, is supposed to bring good luck. The man brings a gift like money, bread, or coal, to ensure the family will have plenty of these in the year to come. The first person must not be blond, red-haired, or women as these are supposed to signify bad luck. In London, crowds gather in Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus to hear the chimes of London’s big Ben as it announces the arrival of the New Year.

The French New Year is ‘Jour des Etrennes’, or Day of New Year’s Presents. Dinner parties are thrown for the entire family, where presents are exchanged. In Germany, people drop molten lead into cold water to tell the future from the shape it makes. A bit of food eaten on New Year’s Eve is left on their plate until after Midnight, as a way on ensuring a well stocked larder in the coming year.

In Athens, Greece, January 1 is an important date because it is St. Basil’s Day, as well as the first day of the year. St. Basil was known for his kindness to children. Stories tell how he would come in the night and leave gifts for children in their shoes.

People gather, have special meals and exchange gifts in this spirit. In Hungary the people burn effigies, or a scapegoat known as “Jack Straw”. The scapegoat represents the evils and misfortunes of the past year. Burning the effigy is supposed to get rid of the bad luck and usher one into a more blessed New Year.

The Indian New Year’s is started with a festival called ‘Diwali’. Cards and gifts are usually exchanged and people finish off any uncompleted work before the clock chimes. For the Japanese, ‘Oshogatsu’ is an important time for foamy celebrations, when all businesses are usually closed. To keep out evil spirits they hang a rope of straw across the front of their houses.

The rope stands for happiness and good luck. When the New Year begins, the Japanese people begin to laugh, which is supposed to bring them good luck in the New Year.

The Dutch people usually burn Christmas Trees in street bonfires and let fireworks ring in the New Year, while in Poland, the day is known as St. Sylvester’s Eve, in honour of Pope Sylvester I. Legend, who was the Pope that foiled the plans of a dragon to devour the world in the year 1000. For the Scottish, the ‘Night of the Candle’ is important and sees people prepare for New Year by cleaning their home and purifying it with a ritual or burning juniper branches carried through the home.

The ‘First Footer’, the first person to set foot into your home on New Year’s Day decides the luck of the family for the coming year. South Africa’s New Year is rung in with church bells ringing and gunshots being fired.

On New Year’s Day there is a carnival atmosphere across major streets with lots of merriment. South American countries like Brazil and Mexico fondly make a dummy or straw person which is often placed outside the home and burned at midnight to herald the New Year, while in Spain, everything including theatre productions and movies, are stopped at Midnight on New Year’s Day. As the clock strikes midnight everyone eats twelve grapes.

They eat one grape for each toll to bring good luck for the next twelve months of the New Year. Sometimes the grapes are washed down with wine. In Wales, it starts around 3:00 to 4:00 am on New Year’s morning, when the boys of the village go from house to house with an evergreen twig to sprinkle on the people and then each room of their house, to bring good luck. On New Year’s Day the children travel the neighbourhood singing songs and are rewarded with coins and chocolates. In all the cultures, the utmost concern belying the rituals is to usher in an era of good luck in the New Year. This may seem like superstition, but it has held the communities closer to the creators over the generations.


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