Everything Changes On New Year's Day

12/01/2011 12:53 pm ET | Updated Dec 06, 2011
  • Ken Jennings MapQuest

New Year's Eve is celebrated in different ways -- and different days -- all over the world. Our expert surveys the globe.


Bono of U2 once lamented that "Nothing changes on New Year's Day." But he was wrong, just as he was when he chose to wear those terrible mauve sunglasses during the Vertigo Tour. New Year's celebrations do change -- from continent to continent, nationality to nationality, language to language, and even day to day (not all cultures celebrate it on January 1, you insensitive Westerner). Although the New Year is probably the most universally observed celebration on the planet, no two places celebrate it quite the same.

Take the New Year's menu, for example. While you're putting out a Costco veggie tray and waiting for the pizza guy to arrive, Koreans are serving a rice-cake soup called tteokguk, said to grant each eater one additional year of life. The dish is served annually, of course, which I suppose means that no one in Korea ever dies, unless some year they accidentally eat a bowl of the wrong kind of soup -- chicken corn chowder, perhaps, or Italian wedding. In Spain and Portugal, the trademark snack is a dozen grapes, to be eaten at high speed on the chimes of midnight. (The tradition dates back to 1909, when a canny Alicante grape farmer decided this would be a great way to sell off the last of his crop every December.) At Vietnamese New Year, watermelon seeds are dyed red -- the luckiest of colors! -- and eaten with practically everything. In Greece and Eastern Europe, families gather around a "St. Basil's pie," a big pastry with a coin hidden in one part of the dough. The one who finds the coin is promised good fortune in the year ahead. My family tried this same exact tradition one year, although not on purpose, and instead of a pastry we used a Crock-Pot full of chili-cheese dip, and instead of a coin we used my sister's retainer.

If you've ever woken up on January 1 after a hazy night of New Year's revelry to find that your underwear is now yellow -- well, maybe you should consider moving to Sao Paulo. In much of South America, the superstition is to don yellow underpants for a financially prosperous new year, or red underpants for a romantic one. If you want both love and money -- red with yellow polka-dots, maybe? Those polka dots would also be a smart fashion choice in the Philippines, where round shapes at New Year's are said to bring the wearer good luck. But by far the world's best-dressed man at New Year's is the king of Swaziland. To announce the start of his people's Incwala ("first fruits") celebration, the Swazi king emerges wearing a grass cloak, a lion-skin headdress, and a loincloth made of silver monkey skin, eats a few bites of sacred pumpkin, and tosses the rest to his warriors. By a strange coincidence, this is also how Charlie Sheen likes to arrive at parties.

Speaking of parties, the games played at the world's New Year festivities range from coconut bowling in Sri Lanka to chair-jumping in Denmark. (The Danes believe that it's good luck to be caught in mid-air at the stroke of midnight. But then again they also believe that smashing dishes against their neighbor's house is a hilarious New Year's custom, so maybe we shouldn't study their idea of fun too carefully.) When it's New Year's in Cambodia, everyone heads to the monasteries to offer food to the monks -- and watch them compete at games like tug-of-war. Were you wondering what sport is enjoyed by the world's most tranquil, enlightened minds? Well, now you know: Tug-of-war.

Ken Jennings' Global New Year's Map

Click on the map and explore the world -- and its many odd New Year's traditions.

Dance Of The Buttocks

Sometimes the New Year's ceremonies are more elaborate. In Laos, Hmong New Year is marked by a big housecleaning, after which all the dirt and dust is brought outside and dumped near a looped rope. Family members jump back and forth through the loop enough times to confuse the poor "dirt spirits" -- who, presumably, get too dizzy to ever return inside. In Talca, Chile, the big party venue is the candle-lit local cemetery. Residents spend the midnight hour chatting with their dead relatives, who -- let's face it -- rarely get New Year's invitations otherwise. Ashikaga, Japan, is home to the world's only "Festival of Abusive Language" every new year. Locals make a 40-minute walk up a dark mountain path, loudly cursing out their enemies (bosses, teachers, and other annoyances of modern life) at the night sky. They arrive at their temple purged of anger and ready to pray for a happier new year. This seems much healthier than the American holiday custom for relieving boss-related stress: making fun of him behind his back at the Christmas party and then slacking off at work all year.

But no country has gone to greater lengths than the tiny Pacific republic of Kiribati, which to improve its New Year's standing has literally redrawn the world map. In 1995, Kiribati announced that it was moving eight of its islands to the other side of the International Date Line, in effect creating a whole new time zone for just 8,000 residents. The announced reason for the change was to put their entire archipelago into the same time zone and make it easier to administer, but -- perhaps not coincidentally -- it also made the remote Line Islands of Kiribati the first place on Earth to see the new year every January 1. On January 1, 2000, the islanders held elaborate ceremonies including a traditional "Dance of the Buttocks," drawing visitors from all over the world. (To see the first millennial sunrise, that is. Buttocks are pretty much the same everywhere.)

Samoa and Tokelau, eager to boost tourism in the same way, have announced that they'll be jumping to the western side of the Date Line this year, as well, by skipping December 30, 2001, completely! So everything can change on New Year's Day -- even, sometimes, your time zone. Take that, Bono.

Ken Jennings is a 74-game Jeopardy! champion and the author of three books, the latest of which is Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks. He lives in Seattle, blogs at ken-jennings.com, and tweets as @KenJennings.

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