You Gotta Know These New-Year Celebrations
- The Times Square Ball Drop was first held on December 31, 1907. The ball begins dropping atop the One Times Square building at 11:59 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, and completes its downward journey at the stroke of midnight, accompanied by an audiovisual celebration. The Time Square ball drop was conceptualized by Adolph Ochs, who owned and published the New York Times, and who had previously organized midnight fireworks displays. The first Times Square ball was made of wood and iron and utilized 100 incandescent bulbs; the modern ball includes over 32,000 LED lights. The ball drop is traditionally followed by the playing of “Auld Lang Syne” and “New York, New York”; in a more recent addition to the ceremony, John Lennon’s song “Imagine” is sung at five minutes to midnight.
- Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish new year. Rosh HaShanah falls on the first day of the Jewish month of Tishrei (though in many communities it is celebrated for the first two days), the first month of the Jewish calendar, and begins a ten-day period known as the High Holy Days, which concludes with Yom Kippur. Because of differences between the Gregorian and Jewish calendar, Rosh HaShanah may fall anywhere between September 5 and October 5. Rosh HaShanah services often include 100 soundings of the shofar, or ram’s horn, and in many communities people may gather by bodies of water to perform the ritual of tashlikh, or the casting off of sins (represented by breadcrumbs or the like) into water. A popular treat on Rosh HaShanah is apples dipped in honey, symbolizing hopes for a sweet and pleasant year. There are actually several other notions of the new year in Judaism; most notably, Nissan is often considered the first month because that is the month in which the exodus from Egypt took place, and the holiday Tu B’Sh’vat is considered the new year for trees.
- The Chinese New Year is a lengthy celebration of the incoming year that traditionally lasts for 15 days. The Chinese calendar is a lunar calendar, and the first day of the first month falls on the first new moon of late January or early February. It is traditional in China for people to travel home to their families to celebrate the new year; this period of travel, known as Chunyun, involves nearly 400 million people. On the New Year, children are often given red envelopes containing money by their older, married relatives; one folk origin of this tradition involves the glimmer of coins scaring away a demon. Chinese New Year celebrations conclude on the 15th day of the year with the Lantern Festival, in which (usually red) paper lanterns with riddles written on the side are lit.
- Nowruz is the Persian or Iranian New Year celebration. Nowruz—derived from the Persian language term for “new day”—is generally celebrated on March 21 to coincide with the vernal equinox and has its roots in Zoroastrian celebrations of the return of spring. Traditional preparations for Nowruz include gathering water to fill all available vessels in a household, as a sign of abundance. Among the best known of Nowruz traditions is the Haft Sin, a table setting of seven dishes—including sprouts, apples, and olives—each of which begins with the same letter in Persian. Mythologically, Nowruz is connected with the legendary Persian king Jamshid, who is said to have flown through the sky in a chariot on the holiday.
- Tết Nguyên Đán, generally shortened to Tết, is the Vietnamese New Year celebration. Tết, like the Chinese New Year, has a moveable date in the Gregorian calendar, as it is based on the observation of the new moon. The first three days of Tết involve traditions of visitation: it is a widely held belief that the first visitor to a house in the new year will determine a family’s luck for the remainder of the year, so a family will selectively invite their ritual first guest of the year to ensure good fortune. On the second and third days of Tết, people traditionally visit friends and teachers, respectively. Traditional foods for Tết include bánh chung, a rice cake legendarily invented by a Hung prince to win the throne. In the West, Tết is often associated with the Tết Offensive, a major 1968 North Vietnamese attack during the Vietnam War.
- Hogmanay is the Scottish New Year celebration, with festivities traditionally beginning on New Year’s Eve (per the Gregorian calendar). The origin of the name “Hogmanay” is unclear, though it may derive from “hoginane,” a French word meaning “gala day.” Hogmanay traditions include the ringing of bells to ring in the new year, and the collective singing of “Auld Lang Syne”—a tradition that spread to many other Western cultures. Many locations hold fire parades to celebrate Hogmanay, including the coastal village of Stonehaven, where groups of men swing fireballs over their heads. “First footing” is the Hogmanay tradition of welcoming a first visitor of the year, who is said to bring great luck if he is tall, dark-haired, and handsome. Visitors are expected to bring gifts of dark rye bread and coal, the latter symbolizing warmth.
- Shogatsu (New Year, January 1) and Koshogatsu (Little New Year, January 15) are Japanese New Year celebrations. In 1873 Japan switched from a lunar calendar to the Gregorian calendar following the Meiji Restoration and began to observe New Year festivities on January 1. Shogatsu traditions include watching the year’s first sunrise (known as hatsuhinode) and making the year’s first visit to a shrine (known as hatsumode). At the moment of the new year, Japanese Buddhist temples traditionally ring their bells 108 times to drive away worldly temptation. Foods eaten on New Years include pounded rice cakes known as mochi and a chicken soup called ozouni. The “Little New Year” on January 15 may involve the taking down of New Year’s decorations, fire festivals, and preparation of a gruel made with azuki beans and rice.
- Songkran, also commonly known as the “Water Festival,” is a traditional New Year’s celebration in Thailand. Songkran is celebrated from April 13 to 15 and coincides with the astrological progression into Aries. Songkran celebrations usually include a ritual ceremony at the Wat Pho Temple in Bangkok, which is home to a massive reclining Buddha statue. The festival gets its popular name from the tradition of people sprinkling and splashing water on each other to wash away the past year, which developed into large festive water fights, in part to relieve the April heat (though these have been more tightly regulated in recent years). Many other Southeast Asian nations celebrate a water festival at the same time as Songkran, including Myanmar (Thingyan), Laos (Pi Mai), and Cambodia (Chaul Chnam Thmey).
- The Junkanoo is a festive, competitive street parade held in the Bahamas on both New Year’s Day and Boxing Day (January 1 and December 26). The festival—whose name may come from John Canoe, an 18th-century chief of the West African Ahanta people—likely originates from the celebrations of enslaved people who were given respite around Christmas. The main Junkanoo parade is a massive procession down Bay Street in Nassau. In the procession, groups that may number in the hundreds perform traditional folk music and dance while dressed in elaborate costumes; the performing groups in the parade compete with one another for prizes. Junkanoo parades are known for beginning in the middle of the night, with many of them starting at around 2 to 3 a.m. and continuing until nearly noon.
- The Tournament of Roses Parade and Rose Bowl Game are held annually in Pasadena, California on January 1 (though they are held on January 2 if New Year’s Day is a Sunday). The first Rose Parade was staged by the Valley Hunt Club in 1890 as a way to flaunt California’s mild winter weather. Today, the parade is known for extravagant floats covered in elaborate floral designs. The Rose Bowl Game was first played as the “Tournament East–West” game in 1902, with the University of Michigan defeating Stanford 49–0. Traditionally, the game pits the champion of the Big 10 Conference against the champion of the Pac-12 Conference, although variations in this matchup occur when the Rose Bowl is used as a College Football Playoff semifinal game, or if one of the conference champions is playing in another CFP game.
This article was contributed by NAQT member Jason Thompson.