In Japan, New Year’s is where one can witness the modern, innovative, and fast-paced society return to its cultural roots through its long-established customs and celebrations.
On New Year’s day, Hatsumode, the first prayer of New Year, is held at Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples. At these dwellings, one can receive an o-mikuji, which are paper fortunes containing a blessing or curse and fortune for the upcoming year. The fronts of homes and buildings are decorated with kadomatsu, a pine and bamboo decoration made to welcome the Shinto gods. The pine represents longevity and power, while the bamboo symbolizes strength.
The days leading up to New Year’s Eve are when Japanese post offices are busiest. Equivalent to the Western custom of sending out Christmas cards, it is Japanese tradition to write nengajo, or postcards, for delivery to your loved ones on January 1st. Often written on these cards are customary phrases such as, Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu (Happy New Year), and they are beautifully crafted with materials such as acrylic paints, markers, and colorful papers. The ringing of the bells in Buddhist temples is another traditional New Year’s practice in Japan. The bell is rung 108 times (107 on December 31st, and once after midnight) to represent the 108 human sins in Buddhist belief, as it will ward off one’s sins from the previous year.
Osechi, along with mochi and soba noodles are a few of the several foods that are eaten on New Years. Osechi is a bento-like box comprised of traditional Japanese New Year dishes. Varying from pickled vegetables to fish cakes, the foods which make up osechi differ from region to region and are chosen for their own symbolic meaning. Making mochi, a rice cake in which water is pounded into white rice, on New Year’s Eve and eating it on New Year’s Day is also a custom, which is a rice cake made from pounding white rice with water. Toshikoshi soba, or “year-crossing soba,” is traditionally served as the last dish of New Year’s dinner. Eating these noodles celebrates the passing of the old year, and is believed that the long buckwheat noodle represents hope for a long life filled with strength and resiliency.
Feliz Año Nuevo! In Mexico, at the stroke of midnight, people pour out into the streets and wish each other a happy new year. Similar to the United States, New Year’s Day in Mexico is celebrated with large street parades, fireworks, food, bells, and decorations.
Pan dulce, sparkling cider, and lentils are traditionally consumed during New Year’s and New Year’s Eve. Pan dulce, or sweet bread, is traditionally baked with a lucky charm or pendant hidden inside. When the bread is served, whoever receives the slice with the trinket inside is considered to be the luckiest person for the upcoming year. Lentils are eaten because they symbolize abundance. The bubbles in the sparkling cider are thought to represent a spark of happiness. Other popular foods include bacalao, dried and salted codfish, and ponche, a hot Mexican fruit punch.
Festive colors decorate the interior of homes and the streets. Red symbolizes courage, love, and a better lifestyle, while yellow represents enjoyment and blessings. Green means financial upliftment, and white stands for good health.
As it is in many other countries, Mexican New Year is full of a rich variety of traditions. A popular New Year’s tradition in Mexico is to write down all the events of the year, both good and bad, and throw them into the fire at the stroke of midnight. The burning paper represents the both the removal of all the bad events during the past year and the new beginning the upcoming year brings. Another custom is clean everything, from small possessions to the entire house, before midnight. Cleaning is closely associated with luck during the New Year; many people sweep their front door entrance in order to sweep out the bad luck.
Mexicans celebrate the New Year with fireworks, food, dancing, bonfires, bells, and large street parades, with the largest being in Mexico City. Fireworks are thought to frighten away evil spirits and welcome good luck, while bells represent joy and happiness.
Like America, New Year’s in Portugal features parties, fireworks, light shows, and parades. The island Madeira hosts the grandest Portuguese New Year party and is world famous for it massive firework, light, and laser shows. The city of Porto is well known for its splendid wine, while Serra da Estrela is ideal for snow sports with family and friends. Despite the extravagance, Portuguese New Year’s celebrations are known for, simple customs are what gives New Year’s in Portugal its own flair.
As in Mexico and Spain, a classic tradition during New Year’s is to eat twelve grapes twelve seconds before midnight. Depending on who you ask, each grape represents either a month of luck, or one wish per month. Another celebrated custom is Portugal’s Janeiras, or New Year’s Carolers, who sing traditional songs during street festivities and wish everyone a Happy New Year. On the morning of New Year’s Day, children go around the neighborhood singing New Years songs, and receive sweets and coins from the adults in return.
A New Year’s staple in Portugal is the Bolo-Rei Cake, or King Cake. The cake itself is round with a large hole in the center, and made with white dough, raisins, various nuts, and crystallised fruits. The cake itself resembles a crown adorned with dried fruit. Much like Mexico’s tradition with pan dulce, a fava, or bread bean, is hidden inside the cake. However, instead of luck, whoever finds the fava is obligated to pay for the Bolo-Rei next year. Bolo-Rei is eaten between Christmas and Dia de Reis (Kings Day, January 6th), but the recipe itself is very secretive. Very few bakers know the recipe, thus the cake is usually bought rather than baked. Caldo Verde e Brao, or green broth and corn bread, are also commonly eaten during New Year’s.
With elaborate firework displays, festive parties, and grand attractions, New Year’s in Portugal is a definite tourist favorite. But what really gives New Year’s in Portugal its own twist is the centuries-old traditions that still continue today.
Christine Han and Heather Loo
Graphics: Jessica Chang