In View of Scotland/Love Poem, Liz Lochhead, a former Scots Makar, describes the cleaning of a house from top to bottom on New Year’s Eve:
Down on her hands and knees
at ten at night on Hogmanay,
my mother still giving it elbowgrease
jiffywaxing the vinolay.
However, as friends from Scotland reliably inform me, they will not quite be pandering to this ritual of "redding" on this coming new year.
Whether across nations or households, shared practices – rituals – help define who we are. So, wanting to learn more about The Correspondent’s members, spread out across 130 countries, we asked them to share their end-of-year traditions.
Inspired by an anecdote about the Japanese "jumping" into the new year, Tracy shared this: “Every New Year’s Eve, at midnight, we climb up on chairs, sofas or whatever is convenient and at the stroke of midnight jump into the New Year. I have since found out that it is not really a Japanese tradition – but it has become our tradition."
While jumping into the new year is not an official end-of-year tradition, Haruka from Japan does remember doing it as a child, taking delight in being in the air: "I’m not on earth at the moment when the new year strikes."
Members shared traditions from cultures they’d grown up with, and others they’d adopted along the way, but few have had the breadth of festive experiences that Shakeel has, having experienced Hanukah, Christmas, Ramadan, Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha. Born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, he explained that his family didn’t have a year-end tradition. He added: "Moving to the United States in my early 20s and marrying a Jewish girl has given me a wide range of perspectives at the end of every year."
"We enjoyed decorating Christmas trees, making/decorating cookies, opening gifts on Christmas days, lighting the menorah, fasting and feasting during Ramadan, and large gathering for Eid celebrations. This year, we will be saying goodbye to 2019 with a visit to the northern part of Pakistan … I hope to form a new tradition starting with this trip."
In the heat of December in Australia buckets of water are left out for reindeer, said Sally from Darwin. She added that tropical festive lunch includes salad, crabs and prawn, and beer: "We swim and sleep in the afternoon and wait for the rains." This year, Robert explained how hard the festive period will be, with bush fires raging across the country more furiously than ever before.
This time of year also encourages acts of kindness and generosity. Esther, from the Netherlands, spends every 26 December in London where she volunteers with a homelessness charity. "Many of these people have been faced with dark moments," she said. "Think violence, abuse, job loss, divorce, bereavement – and just tried to keep their balance on that tiny ledge between society and the abyss. I am grateful that I never slipped off that ledge in my dark days. I am the lucky one. And they are my teachers."
Food, glorious food!
Food is a common theme across all new year celebrations described to us. “On New Year’s Day it is a custom to visit your neighbours and have a stiff drink and a wafer. Imagine us walking back home after having visited six neighbours … ” wrote Netty. She explained that the choice of foods at this time of year were indicative of the Dutch colonial legacy. "Food is an expression of our roots,” she said, listing the wafers, jaarskoeken, oliebollen, and Indonesian cake (roti kudus) traditionally eaten.
In Russia, the dinner table is typically so full that "your wine glass or a shot for vodka barely fits in between dishes," contributed Arseniy . "Cold cuts, mayonnaise salads, meat jelly, everything has to be in abundance. Then, of course, ice cold vodka shots to improve digestion.”
There is great symbolism in sharing food. Take the folding of a Dutch cookie, or the passing of a Polish wafer. The thin, round kniepertie cookie "means: the year has unfolded – no secrets for us anymore," said GP Hofstra, who shared a brilliant example of this with the kniepertie. GP added: "The same cookie is also served at the very beginning of the year, only then it is rolled up. At the beginning of the year we call the cookie ‘rolletje’ because the new year is still a secret and we do not know what is coming, what will happen exactly."
Christin shared that the Spaniards eat 12 grapes to celebrate the 12 months ahead to each gong of the clock chiming into the new year, which is "not an easy endeavour!"
In Poland, Wigilia, the Christmas Eve supper celebrated on 24 December, family members break off a piece of a wafer as they shared their hardships and hopes.
"Now, as an adult, and after losing not only my grandmother and grandfather, but two aunts and one cousin, Wigilia is more dear to me than ever,” Carly wrote. “It’s a chance for us all to be close, to share our experiences, and have comfort in the face of incredible sadness."
Food has remained a central part of year end traditions even as those traditions have been altered. For Anne ’s family, the transition was going meat free: "We will cook a vegan Surinam-Caribbean feast with roti after previously having a mixed plant and animal based dinner. We can focus again on togetherness, joy, gratitude, movies, music and a bit of decadence."
A time to ... get things off your chest
What was clear over and over from the practices that were shared was that traditions are formed to celebrate certain values held dear, such as openness. For Christine, that openness takes the form of a top 10 list of the most significant moments in their lives over the past year, shared among friends and people she doesn’t even know! “This can be a TV show that meant a lot, or the illness of a loved one that cast a long shadow,” wrote Christine. “It’s interesting to look back on our own lists for previous years, but also to reflect on each other’s milestones.”
Laura and her wider family have created a tradition known as "Amnesty Night", held at an Italian restaurant they frequent in Boston, US: “On Amnesty Night you can confess stuff you did during the year that you didn’t want your parents to find out about. And if you confess it, it’s over. It’s a blessing to have those lines of communication open."
Leaving the past behind and shoring up the future
Red underwear is worn in southern Italy, and yellow in Ecuador people for luck, says Irene. In Venezuela, as in Italy, the tradition is to wear new clothes. In a curious Neapolitan tradition "people also throw a lot of the old stuff they don’t need out of their windows: calendars, glasses, but also rubbish".
Noise forms a part of many new year’s celebrations. For example, locals head to the city centre to see a loud, and very long, chain of firecrackers set off in Paramaribo, Surinam, which are said to warn off evil spirits. Others celebrate with a sense of ingenuity despite a lack of resources. "Many years ago, near Timbuktu, our Malian friends … got pins out and we burst balloons, to mimic firecrackers," says Lucia. "We danced until the battery powered tape recorder ran out of juice."
In Belarus, Russia and Germany, television is part of the celebration. " Irony of Fate is one of the most archetypical USSR movies," adds Arseniy. "A must-see for anybody staying indoors is the 1963 British "Dinner for One" sketch, which the Brits have forgotten about, but which remains a huge annual TV hit," adds Christin in Germany.
"The chimes of the Kremlin towers broadcast live from Moscow is the moment to write your wishes on a piece of paper, burn it, and drink your champagne together with ash – all before the chimes end – then your wish will most definitely come true," explains Arseniy.
Katz mentions a more modern Dutch tradition, of " jumping in a cold body of water on 1 January". In Edinburgh, Scotland, this tradition is called the " Loony Dook". In Sudan, where the first of January also marks independence day, Lina explains that strangers splash water on others. It could be to wash away the past year. That same idea of cleaning the past is celebrated at the Thai water festival, which marks the beginning of the Buddhist new year (in mid-April).
One thing is sure in the Romanian tradition, avoid chicken and favour fish as a new year’s meal so "you can swim through problems like fish swim through the sea".
And so Liz Lochhead has it too in her wonderful poem:
On the kitchen table
a newly opened tin of sockeye salmon.
Though we do not expect anyone,
the slab of black bun,
petticoat-tails fanned out
on bone china.