Words: Keeta Brennan Images: Getty & 123RF
As the world celebrates the arrival of 2018, we take a look at New Year traditions in different parts of the world.
USA: NEW YEAR’S DAY
At midnight on December 31, the year officially ends and a new year is ushered in on January 1, based on the de facto calendar of the world – the Gregorian calendar. Like many other cities, the start of the New Year is also celebrated with merry-making and revelry in New York, but with a unique custom. Since 1904, one of the most famous New Year traditions in the Big Apple is the New Year’s Eve Ball Drop, which happens in Times Square. At precisely 60 seconds before midnight, a ball descends from a pole atop the iconic One Times Square building and comes to a stop at the bottom just as the clock strikes twelve. The celebration also includes musical performances and fireworks, and attracts over a million people each year, with millions more tuning in via live broadcasts worldwide. Typically, the traditional New Year’s Eve song Auld Lang Syne based on a poem by famed poet Robert Burns (and inspired by a traditional Scottish folk song) is also sung. timessquarenyc.org
PUNJAB, INDIA: NANAKSHAHI NEW YEAR
In accordance with the Nanakshahi calendar (a solar calendar named after Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism), the first month of the year is Chet, and the first day of this month falls on March 14 each year. During this time in Punjab, the Hola Mohalla festival is celebrated with military-style processions accompanied by standard bearers and the beating of war-drums. punjabtourism.gov.in
The Balinese New Year known as Nyepi, which usually falls in the month of March or April, is based on the ancient Pewukon and the Saka calendars. Instead of the usual revelry, Nyepi is a time of silence and meditation. Three days before the New Year, the Melasti ritual takes place, and worshippers fill ancient temples such as Tanah Lot, carrying sacred statues from the temple to be bathed in the ocean, followed by communal prayers. The day before Nyepi, an exorcism ritual known as Tawur Kesanga is held to dispel evil spirits. On the day of Nyepi, Bali becomes a ghost town, with no people or vehicles on the streets – even the airport is closed! This is because the people observe Catur Brata – strict prohibitions that include no working or using fire, be it expending bodily energy, firing up a stove or car engine, or even turning on a light. This quiet day spent in self-reflection allows the Earth to rest and rejuvenate, and symbolises a clean start for the New Year. indonesia.travel
Healing Silence Nyepi inspired the creation of World Silent Day, held annually on March 21. It is dedicated to giving Earth a rest from human activities, and reducing the impact of climate change.
Since the late 19th century, Japan has celebrated Shogatsu on January 1, in accordance with the Gregorian calendar although traditionally, the date was based on the lunar calendar. Shogatsu is one of Japan’s major holidays, and most shops and businesses close from January 1 to 3. Among the famous traditions practised on the eve of the Japanese New Year is ‘the watch-night bell’, where temple bells are rung 108 times – eight rings to signify the ending of the old year, and a hundred rings to usher in the new. In the week leading up to Shogatsu, homes are thoroughly cleaned, and Kadomatsu, a traditional form of decoration made from pine leaves, bamboo and straw, are placed in pairs in front of houses and other buildings. On January 1, people gather at shrines across Japan to partake in Hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the year. in Tokyo, thousands visit the Meiji Jingu Shrine to make offerings of coins, as they pray for luck, health and prosperity for the year ahead. jnto.go.jp
SOUTH KOREA: SEOLLAL
On the first day of the lunar calendar, South Korea celebrates Seollal. In the days leading up to the Korean New Year, thousands of city-dwellers return to their hometowns, armed with gifts for family members. On the first day of Seollal, Koreans wear their traditional attire called hanbok, and ancestral rites are performed to honour and show gratitude to those who have passed. Younger members of the family also pay their respects to the elders by bowing and presenting them with gifts of health products and traditional sweets among others, while children receive money, which they keep in silk or cotton drawstring pouches. Families also feast on traditional fare, in particular, a dish called tteokguk, which is a flavoursome sliced rice cake soup served with meat, eggs and vegetables. An ancient belief is that Koreans age according to the change of the year, and the eating of this soup signifies the official adding of a year to one’s age. english.visitkorea.or.kr
Games People Play Popular Seollal folk games include yut nori, which is a board game played using sticks; paengi chigi, a top-spinning game; and kite flying.
CHINA & WORLDWIDE: CHINESE NEW YEAR
Chinese New Year is celebrated by ethnic Chinese worldwide, usually between January and February of each year. Based on the lunar calendar, the New Year period typically starts on the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month and ends on the 15th day of the first lunar month, signified by the waxing of the full moon. Also known as the Spring Festival in China, the last few days of the old year are spent cleaning, shopping for new clothes, and decorating the home with red lanterns and couplets, signifying auspiciousness and prosperity. On the eve of the first day of Chinese New Year, families gather for the traditional reunion dinner, which is considered one of the most important meals of the year. In Beijing, one of the most popular Spring Festival events is the Dongyue Temple Fair. The Dongyue temple is one of the oldest temples in Beijing, and the central theme of the fair revolves around good fortune and happiness, symbolised by the Chinese character ‘Fu’. The fair features an exhibition on ‘Fu’ culture, lion dances, musical performances, and cultural shows among others, with vendors selling traditional snacks and products. cnto.org
New Year’s Day in Tibet is called Losar and follows the Tibetan lunar calendar. Usually falling in February, Losar celebrations are held over a three-day period, and are steeped in Buddhist tradition and Tibetan culture. Activities meant to remove negativity fill the days preceding Losar, as temples and monasteries undertake cleansing rituals, and homes are cleaned in preparation for a fresh start. On the first day of Losar, Buddhists gather before dawn at temples to pray for a good year ahead. Sacred dances are also performed, while offerings are made to dharmapalas (defenders of Tibetan Buddhism), in particular, Palden Lhamo, the venerated deity who protects Tibet. On the second day, there’s much feasting and visiting family and friends, and on the third day, crowds gather at stupas for Lhasang, an incense offering ceremony, followed by chanting and the hurling of roasted barley flour known as tsampa, to increase happiness, health and prosperity. On this day, prayer flags are also hung, creating a riot of colours. cnto.org
MUSLIM COMMUNITIES WORLDWIDE: AWAL MUHARRAM
The first day of the month of Muharram in the Islamic calendar signifies the start of a new year for Muslims. Within the month, many Muslims undertake supererogatory fasting and prayers, particularly on the tenth day, known as the day of Ashurah.
Ethiopia celebrates New Year on September 11, although in leap years, it shifts to September 12 in accordance with the Ge’ez calendar. Traditional Enkutatash activities include church prayers, bonfires lit to ward off bad luck, and a meal of injera (flatbread) and wat (traditional stew). ethiopia.travel
BHAKTAPUR, NEPAL: NANA VARSHA
According to the Bikram Sambat calendar, Nava Varsha is the first day of the year, and falls in April. In Bhaktapur, a nine-day festival known as Bisket Jatra is celebrated to officiate the start of a brand new year. The festivities begin with tantric rituals and prayers at the Bhairabi Temple in Bhaktapur. Effigies of both Bhairavnath and Bhadrakali – powerful and fierce manifestations of the Hindu god Shiva and goddess Devi – are placed in large wooden chariots known as rathas and pulled by crowds across the city, accompanied by music and loud cheers. The chariot procession halts in the town centre, and a game of tug of war ensues between the eastern and western parts of the city. Later, the procession heads down towards the river, where a 25-metre high pole, called the Yoshin Pole, is erected. The pole features two flowing banners, representing two evil snakes that were vanquished by a prince – a local legend that lends its story to the celebration. Once the pole is successfully toppled in a tug of war, the New Year officially begins. On the days that follow, families and friends gather to pray, exchange blessings, and enjoy festive meals. welcomenepal.com
Spiritual Stupor During Bisket Jatra, some devotees pierce their tongues with an iron spike while in a spiritual trance, and walk around town carrying flaming torches held in a bamboo rack.
VIETNAM: TET NGUYEN DAN
Vietnamese celebrate Tet Nguyen Dan on the first day of the lunar calendar. Also known as ‘Tet’, the Vietnamese New Year is a time to remember ancestors and spend time with the family. In olden times, Tet was also a significant holiday for farmers, as the break came after harvesting and before the sowing of new crops. As Tet arrives, people clean their homes as a way of throwing out the bad luck of the old year, and place offerings such as fruit on ancestral altars. In the Old Quarter of Hanoi, shops are filled with an abundance of Tet decorations, consisting of lanterns, couplets and religious decorations symbolising luck and fortune, predominantly in the auspicious colours of red, yellow and gold. These decorations adorn homes during the season, along with kumquat trees, peach blossoms and a variety of flowers. As dawn breaks on the day of Tet, people greet one another in good cheer, as exemplary behaviour on this day is believed to encourage good fortune for the whole year ahead. vietnamtourism.com
Following the Thai solar calendar, Songkran is celebrated on April 13 each year. The day begins with meritmaking and purification rituals to ward off bad luck and clear negative energy. With water as a significant theme, people take to the streets and joyfully douse each other with water. tourismthailand.org
ORIGINS OF TIME
Here’s a quick look at how the Gregorian calendar came to be universally accepted.
Before the birth of the Gregorian calendar, the Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar, named January 1 as the start of a new year.
The name ‘January’ was taken from the name Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, transitions and endings.
During the Middle Ages, January 1 was seen as a pagan holiday, and different Christian countries adopted differing days as New Year’s Day, causing disunity of dates and time.
The birth of the Gregorian calendar, devised by Pope Gregory XIII, brought an end to differing dates by reinstating January 1 as New Year’s Day.
DID YOU KNOW?
The earliest New Year celebration known to man dates back to 2000 BCE in the ancient region of Mesopotamia.