New Year’s beliefs and traditions

A bit late, but might give you some ideas how to celebrate New Year’s 2013. This article appeared in the North Clare Local in January…. 

Happy New Year (via Wikimedia Commons)

Happy New Year (via Wikimedia Commons)


New Year’s is what the academics call a “liminal” time; it’s a period of change, of uncertainty. Human beings, as a general rule, are a little unsure what to do at times of change. They cling to ritual and tradition to ensure their safety through the “in-between” spell.

End of year rituals around the world can be extremely bizarre. In Germany, it is tradition to watch a long-forgotten (in the English-speaking world at any rate) British sketch called Dinner for One on New Year’s Eve. It is broadcast every year and up to half the population watches it, but no-one’s sure why. In the Philippines, it’s good luck to wear polka dots on New Year’s, and in South America, colourful underwear will bring you prosperity. Mexicans attend séances while in a small town in Chile, people will see in 2013 in a graveyard. Danes smash plates on their neighbour’s door. Meanwhile in Spain, if you can eat 12 grapes while the clock strikes midnight, you’ll have good luck for the year.

Many New Year’s beliefs are universal. The Romans were amongst to celebrate the New Year, and the month January is named after the god Janus. Janus guarded thresholds, doorways and other crossings. He had two faces- one looking back into the past, the other looking forward to the future. This sums up nicely what New Year’s traditions are all about- recognising and remembering the previous year, while planning for a happy and healthy new year.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Co Kerry town of Portmagee. Since 1727, when the tradition was started by passing French smugglers, the Old Year, represented as an elderly man, staggers through the village, as if on his last legs. 2012 will then die as dramatically as possible at midnight to be replaced by a young besuited man who’ll represent 2013. The young man’s identity is kept secret until midnight. John Devane, who played the Old Year for many years, passed away in 2004.

Across Ireland, and indeed much of the western world, people will gather to ring in the New Year, singing “Auld Lang Syne” at midnight. This Robert Burns poem, set to the air of a traditional Scottish tune, was sung by Scots at their Hogmanay celebrations before spreading further.

Nobody does New Year’s like the Scots. The festival, known as Hogmanay, was once a bigger deal than Christmas and has been revived in recent times. The main custom throughout Scotland is “first-footing”. This is done to ensure good luck during the coming year. It was very important that the first person who crossed the threshold during the year was a friendly face. Neighbours called with gifts such as cake, coal or even salt to ensure good luck.

Other Scottish beliefs include “fireball swinging”. This is as dangerous as it sounds. Locals in Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, set fire to balls of chicken wire, paper and other flammable materials. Holding onto them with three-foot long wires, the locals parade the streets, swinging the fireballs around their heads, before flinging them into the sea.

Another nice Scottish custom is the practice of army regiments piping the “Old Year” out the barracks. The New Year is then ushered in. The sentry asks “Who goes there?” and the other soldiers reply “The New Year, all’s well.”

The Irish share the belief with the Scots that the first person entering the house on New Year’s sets the tone for the next twelve months. A tall, dark-haired man bodes well for the next year. A redheaded girl is extremely unlucky.

Likewise, a family should have a full supply of food and fuel in the house on New Year’s Eve, to guarantee a prosperous year. Thorough cleaning was done to ensure a fresh start to the year. Some people swept “the old year” out the door.

For some, New Year’s Eve is a bittersweet occasion when people remember those who have died during the year, or in previous years. An old Irish tradition was to set a place at the table for the dead on the last day of the year.

Some stranger Irish customs include banging bread off the walls of the house for luck. Girls placed mistletoe under their pillow, so to help them to dream of their future husband.

Babies born on New Year’s Day are believed to be very lucky. They can’t be drowned or hanged, and evil will never visit them. They will bring their family luck and prosperity for the coming year and are also supposed to be good at gardening. Of course, for the media savvy parent, a New Year’s baby is a ticket into the papers!

Whatever you decide to do for New Year’s, I hope you have a happy and healthy one and all the very best for 2013.

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