How does Europe bring in the New Year? From smashing pomegranates to donning red underwear, poultry avoidance to Bulgarian whipping boys, this is how New Year’s Eve is celebrated in their home countries.
Greece and Cyprus
In Greece and Cyprus we prepare Vasilopita, a traditional New Year’s cake, on December 31st. You put a coin inside the cake and after midnight we cut it. Whoever finds the coin gets good luck and you have to keep it in your wallet so it will be full of money all year long.
We also hang a pomegranate, an ancient symbol of prosperity and good luck, above the door over Christmas. Then at midnight on New Year’s Eve, the lights are turned out and the pomegranate is hurled at the door – when it smashes, spilling out its seeds, the more seeds the more luck, health, happiness and prosperity for the coming year.
Hungary has traditional dishes for New Year’s Eve, which include salty cakes, roasted pig, lentil soup and sausage. But you’ll never catch a Hungarian eating poultry for New Year’s Eve, because chickens are said to “scratch the good luck”.
Otherwise, we celebrate New Year’s Eve with trumpets (children and drunk people tend to start this up well before midnight) and when the clock strikes 12 everyone listens to the national anthem on television, standing with a glass of Champagne in hand until the end when we clink glasses and wish each other a happy new year. Then the president makes a televised speech, which most people watch, then we phone our loved ones to wish them good luck for the year ahead.
New Year’s Eve is called Hogmanay in Scotland and it’s as big a deal as Christmas (which, thanks to Presbyterianism, only became a public holiday in 1958). We have massive street parties – Edinburgh’s is among the biggest in the world – and at the stroke of midnight you link arms with whoever is next to you and sing Auld Lang Syne, a Robert Burns poem.
Then comes first footing where you visit your friends and neighbours – and the first person in your house after midnight is a forecast for your year ahead. If a tall, dark man is your first visitor it’s good luck, whereas a fair-haired woman is a bad omen. You should bring a lump of coal with you and say “Lang may yer lum reek” (meaning long may your chimney smoke, a wish for a long and happy life) – and a bottle of whisky, for obvious reasons.
On the 1st of January we do what’s called the Loony Dook – running into the North Sea. There’s a mass event held in the Firth of Forth, just outside Edinburgh, but any freezing cold stretch of sea will do.
Italian traditions include eating lentils and cotechino (a large pork sausage) at midnight. This tradition originates from the ancient Roman custom of giving a “scarsella” (a leather bag) tied to the belt and containing lentils, with the wish that they would be transformed into coins. The name lentil, in fact, derives from the particular shape of these legumes, which resembles that of a coin. Italians also wear red underwear to bring good luck for the coming year.
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