New Year's Eve

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New Year's Eve

Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: December 31
Where Celebrated: Australia, British Isles, North and South America, Europe, Scandinavia, former Soviet Union, and in all countries using the Gregorian calendar
Symbols and Customs: "Auld Lang Syne," Noisemaking, Old Man, Wassail Bowl
Related Holidays: Chinese New Year, Dewali, Hogmanay, Nawruz, New Year's Day, Oshogatsu, Rosh Hashanah, Saturnalia, Sol, Tet, Watch Night


Midnight on December 31 marks the transition between the Old Year and the New Year, an occasion that is celebrated with everything from prayer to parties. Some people wear silly hats, drink champagne, and use noisemakers; they're apt to kiss their bosses, throw their arms around strangers on the street, and generally engage in behavior that would be considered scandalous at other times of the year. Others attend midnight church services, while still others congregate in public places like New York City's Times Square or London's Trafalgar Square to count down the closing seconds of the old year.

It is likely that our New Year's Eve customs are related, if only indirectly, to the ancient Roman SATURNALIA, which was observed around the time of the WINTER SOLSTICE in December. This pagan holiday was characterized by the suspension of discipline and rules governing behavior, and like New Year's Eve celebrations today, it occasionally got out of hand. In eighteenth-century America, the New Year's Eve revelry in such cities as Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore often ended in street demonstrations and violence. Groups of men and boys would blow tin horns, set off firecrackers, knock down gates and fences, shatter windows, and even break into the homes of the wealthy, demanding money or hospitality.

Unlike CHRISTMAS, which is traditionally celebrated indoors, New Year's Eve festivities frequently take place in the out-of-doors, particularly in urban areas. A popular trend that has emerged in recent years is attending "First Night" celebrations. These originated in Boston in 1976 and are now held in more than 65 American cities. They represent a deliberate attempt to replace the partying and drinking that have traditionally marked New Year's Eve with a wide variety of cultural events and performances in both indoor and outdoor settings. Those who prefer a quiet New Year's Eve at home often get their outdoor experience vicariously by watching the illuminated ball that descends on Times Square during the closing minutes of the old year.


"Auld Lang Syne"

The custom of singing "Auld Lang Syne" on New Year's Eve is all that remains of a much broader custom that originated in the British Isles in the late eighteenth century, when all parties ended with the guests standing in a circle singing this traditional song. The custom first took hold in Scotland, probably because the lyrics were written in 1788 by Robert Burns, the country's favorite folk poet. There were other versions of the song, however, one of which was used in the 1783 opera Rosina by composer William Shield. Most musicologists agree that the tune came from a traditional Scottish folk melody, and that Burns and others merely tinkered with the words.

In the Scots dialect, auld lang syne means "old long since"-in other words, the good old days. Even the rowdiest New Year's Eve parties often end with a relatively quiet, if drunken, rendition of this simple tribute to times past.


The custom of using noise to welcome in the New Year dates back to ancient times, when noise was believed to scare off evil spirits. Although few people today link New Year's Eve with any kind of evil influence, noisemaking still plays a prominent role in their celebrations. In Denmark, young people "smash in the New Year" by banging on their friends' doors and throwing pieces of broken pottery against the sides of houses. In Japan, dancers go from house to house at OSHOGATSU making strange noises by rattling bamboo sticks and pounding drums. In Vietnam, Hawaii, and South America, New Year's Eve is celebrated by setting off firecrackers. And in the United States, New Year's Eve parties almost always feature the inexpensive plastic, paper, or tin noisemakers normally associated with children's birthday parties.

Old Man

If the baby is often used to symbolize the New Year, the old man is the classic symbol of the year that is drawing to an end. Holiday greeting cards used to feature these symbols regularly, although they are less common today. In some ways, Santa Claus (see CHRISTMAS) is the old man we now associate with the passing year. In any case, the baby and the old man serve as a useful metaphor for the birth and death of a calendar year.

Wassail Bowl

In England at one time, New Year's Eve was an occasion for feasting and celebrating. Family and friends would gather around a bowl of hot ale spiced with cloves, nutmeg, and ginger, from which the head of the house would drink to their health. Then each family member or friend would drink from the bowl and pass it on, saying "Waes Hael!" as they drank-an Anglo-Saxon expression meaning, "May you be in good health." The bowl came to be known as the "wassail" bowl, and "wassailing" became a general term for merrymaking during the holiday season.


Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations. 2nd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2003. Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Festivals and Holidays the World Over. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1970. Pike, Royston. Round the Year with the World's Religions. 1950. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995. Tuleja, Tad. Curious Customs: The Stories Behind 296 Popular American Rituals. New York: Harmony, 1987.


Times Square Alliance
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

New Year's Eve

December 31
The last day of the year is usually greeted with mixed emotions—joy and anticipation on the one hand, melancholy and regret on the other. Some celebrate by attending midnight church services, while others congregate in public places like Times Square in New York City, or Trafalgar Square in London, Glasgow's George Square or Edinburgh's Iron Kirk to count down the closing seconds of the old year. In the United States, people congregate at parties, some lasting all night, and many people spend New Year's Eve in front of the television watching other people celebrate. In recent years, celebrations in time zones all over the world have also been televised, so viewers can celebrate several times in one night, if they wish.
In Scotland, December 31 is known as Old Year's Night, or Hogmanay. Although there are a number of theories about the derivation of the name, the tradition it refers to involves handing out pieces of oat-cake to poor children, who go from door to door calling out "Hogmanay!" In the United States, the Scottish song "Auld Lang Syne," with lyrics by poet Robert Burns, is sung at almost every New Year's Eve celebration, while in London, the Scots at St. Paul's Churchyard toast and sing.
In Denmark the New Year is "shot in" with a thunderous explosion of fireworks, rockets, and Chinese pistols. In some villages, young people play pranks such as those done on Halloween in the United States.
Iceland has bonfires to clean up trash and elf dances, because elves are believed to be about on this night and might want to stop and rest on their way.
Neapolitans believe it brings luck to throw pots and dishes out the windows at midnight.
On the last two days of the year in Japan, a fire watch is implemented to prepare for the New Year, their most important holiday. Young men gather into groups then go to separate parts of the towns. They carry a clapper which they sound every few yards, crying out, "take care with fire."
Armenian families spend the night at home feasting. During the celebration, the neighbors, one at a time, lower a basket of presents down the chimney, then it is the recipients' turn to go to their neighbors.
Romanian boys used to go around to their neighbors with a plugusorul, a little plough, which may be a remnant of the Roman Opalia, the festival to the goddess of abundance, Ops. Later they changed to a homemade drum that sounds like a bull, which is what pulls the plough through the meadow. They ring cow bells and crack whips and recite hundreds of verses of their country story at the top of their lungs.
See also First Night; Ladouvane; Omisoka
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 868
BkDays-1864, vol. II, p. 787
BkFest-1937, pp. 63, 99, 117, 306, 335
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 325
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 12, 842, 1100
EncyChristmas-2003, pp. 549, 755
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 256
FestWestEur-1958, pp. 21, 30, 84, 149, 159, 187, 209, 242
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 1
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 773
GdWrldFest-1985, p. 168
OxYear-1999, p. 542

Celebrated in: Armenia, Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador, Germany, Guatemala, Iceland, Japan, Latvia, Panama, Philippines, San Marino, Spain, Thailand

New Year's Eve (Brazil)
December 31
One of the most exotic New Year's Eve celebrations in the world takes place along the beaches of Brazil—particularly Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, where thousands of followers of CandomblÉ, a religion practiced in Brazil, meet to pay homage to the ocean goddess, Yemanjá (or Iemanjá). Dressed in white and carrying fresh flowers, candles, and cachaça (sugarcane alcohol), they flock to the beach around 10 o'clock and lay out tablecloths surrounded by candles and covered with gifts for the goddess. Animal sacrifices are not uncommon.
The ceremony reaches its peak at midnight, when fireworks go off and people rush into the water—shrieking, sobbing, or singing—carrying their flowers and gifts for Yemanjá. If the waves carry their gifts out to sea, it means that the goddess was satisfied and they can go home happy. It is considered an ill omen if the ocean throws back their gifts.
RIOTUR - City of Rio de Janeiro Tourism Authority
Piazza Pio X, 119 / 9th Ctr.
Rio de Janeiro, 20040-020 Brazil
55-21-2271-7000; fax: 55-21-2223-4871

Celebrated in: Brazil

New Year's Eve (Ecuador)
December 31
Many Ecuadorians celebrate the Old Year, Año Viejo, on December 31 by stuffing an old shirt and pair of pants with straw and sewing them together to make an effigy of a man. With a hat on his head, a pipe in his mouth, and a cane in his hand, the scarecrow figure sits in a chair in front of the house, sometimes under an arch made of cypress branches. Someone draws up a mock "last will and testament" listing various family members' faults that must be done away with. At midnight, or earlier if there are small children in the house, someone reads the will aloud and everyone makes jokes about its contents. Then the straw figure is lit with a match, and the faults of the Old Year go up in flames. Sometimes the old man's "widow" goes from house to house, dressed in black and begging for contributions to charity.
After the straw men have burned and the widows have come in from the streets, everyone sits down to enjoy the spiced foods typically served on this night. The most popular is a crisp fried pastry in the shape of a doughnut, which is dipped into a brown sugar syrup.
BkFestHolWrld-1970, p. 16
BkHolWrld-1986, Dec 31

Celebrated in: Ecuador

New Year's Eve (Germany) (Silvesterabend)
December 31
In different areas of Germany, it is considered lucky to eat certain foods on the last night of the old year. Carp is served frequently, not only in homes but in fashionable city restaurants. Another favorite is Silvesterabend punch, a hot drink made from red wine flavored with cinnamon and sugar. Feuerzangenbowle, or "fire tongs punch," has special cones of sugar, soaked in liquor, suspended over the punch bowl. When they are set aflame, the alcoholic sugar drips into the hot wine below. In Baden, a special dried pea soup is considered to bring good luck when served on New Year's Eve. Along the lower Rhine, "little New Year" yeast cookies are baked in the form of spiral wreaths, pretzels, or circles. Everyone leaves a bit of each food served on his or her plate until after midnight in the belief that it will ensure a well-stocked pantry in the coming year.
According to ancient Germanic folk belief, the only way to drive out demons, devils, and other evil spirits on the last night of the year is by making noise. Grown men can be seen riding hobby horses up and down the streets of German villages on New Year's Eve at midnight, and Buttenmandl ("Little Butten Men"), who are peasants dressed in straw clothing and deerskin animal masks, ring bells and drag clanking chains through the streets in an effort to drive out evil spirits.
In the Bavarian Alps, shooting parties are still popular. Sometimes members of shooting societies will climb a mountain and shoot off 500 or more old mortars in unison. ( See Christmas Shooting.)
In the Bavarian town of Oberammergau, a "star singer" carrying a large illuminated star on a long pole leads a New Year's Eve procession that lasts for several hours ( see also Epiphany in Germany). He sings a song that summarizes the events of the past year and extends good wishes for the year to come, accompanied by members of the Passion Play orchestra ( see also Oberammergau Passion Play).
New Year's pranks are common in Germany, such as chocolates with mustard inside, sugar lumps with spiders inside, and firework dogs that produce a string of black, sausage-like material when burned. Among young people, "lead-pouring" parties are popular. They drop a little melted lead into a bowl of cold water and read each other's fortunes by interpreting the shapes the metal assumes.
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 282
FestWestEur-1958, p. 84
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 774

Celebrated in: Germany

New Year's Eve (Spain)
December 31
In Spain, it is customary for families to gather on New Year's Eve in small groups to celebrate the coming of the New Year. Shortly before midnight, bags or bunches of grapes are distributed. When midnight arrives, everyone eats one grape for each stroke of the clock. Eating all 12 grapes before the clock is finished striking ensures good luck in the New Year. The grapes are usually washed down with muscatel wine. So firmly entrenched is the grape-eating custom that in theaters and cinemas, the show is often interrupted at midnight on New Year's Eve so that the audience can eat the grapes and drink the wine they've brought with them.
New Year's Day is spent visiting family and friends, feasting, and exchanging cards and gifts. Eating and drinking well on this day is believed to guarantee an abundance of food and drink in the coming year.
BkFest-1937, p. 297
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 1063
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 733
FestWestEur-1958, p. 188
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 6

Celebrated in: Spain

Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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