European New Year Traditions

“I am a free man. I feel at home everywhere in Europe”

Gerard Depardieu

New Year’s Eve is approaching, and you are wondering how you could best celebrate it? This article is for you! All you need is Turkish red underwear, Danish old plates, Polish horse-drawn sleighs or Moldovan bear costumes. You don’t have any of these? Never mind, you can still opt for the Macedonian mud costume or the Dutch birthday suits! But please, be assured that you’ll be expected to first-foot in Scotland, yodel in Switzerland and climb trees in Slovenia. Unless you feel particularly introverted and you’d prefer Romanian animal whispering… your efforts won’t be in vain, as you can expect to be rewarded with Albanian baklava, Portuguese King’s cake and Spanish grapes… Welcome to Europe, where the craziest New Year customs are…


Baking the King Cake before the ‘Noite Mágica’

The Noite Mágica, literally ‘magic night’ is taken very seriously in Portugal. Wild celebrations break out at New Year: as the clock strikes 12 midnight, party-goers munch on a dozen grapes to guarantee a happy coming year. Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Portugueses also particularly enjoy the tradition of eating a special cake called Bolo-Rei, the ‘King Cake‘. It is a round cake with a large hole in the centre, resembling a crown covered with crystallised and dried fruit. In northern Portugal, children go from house to house singing traditional janeiros, or January songs, for good luck between New Year’s Eve and Epiphany…


Eating Twelve Grapes during the ‘Nochevieja’

Spaniards have a very peculiar way to celebrate what they call ‘the old night’ (La Noche vieja). In the main square of the city, anxious crowds huddle together to stare at the clock on the tower or the church. When the clock bells first strike, they accomplish one of the most ritualistic elements that best characterizes Spanish tradition: eating twelve grapes, las doce uvas de la suerte. Only afterwards they are allowed to shout “¡Feliz Año Nuevo!”. The tradition of eating twelve grapes probably originated in 1909, when Vinalopó grape producers promoted consumption of the fruit due to an overproduction that occurred that year.


Giving New Year’s Tips to Children and Concierges after the ‘Nouvel An’ In Midi-Pyrénées, the charming town of Viella celebrate the beginning of the New Year very originally. After a day of eating and drinking, they take part in an evening mass, a torchlight procession and a late night grape harvest… In another region, Savoie, on New Year’s Day and throughout January, it was customary to give money to children, “les étrennes” (which we could translate as ‘New Year’s tip’), every time they went to visit family members. It is still common nowadays to give some New Year tips or gifts to house staff, guards and concierges to reward the quality of the service provided during the previous year.


Watching the New Year’s Comedy on ‘Gamlárskvöld’

New Year’s Eve in Iceland starts at 6.00 pm with the mass at Reykjavík’s Cathedral. Most Icelanders listen to the evening radio broadcast of the Cathedral mass. Watching “Áramótaskaupið” (‘the New Year’s comedy’) is an important part of the New Year’s celebration for most families. It has been shown annually since its first broadcast in 1966, focuses on the recent year from a satirical standpoint, and shows little mercy toward its victims, especially politicians and artists. The show ends a short time before midnight, and those Icelanders who shoot off fireworks usually do so when it is over.

United Kingdom

First Footing in Scotland on ‘Hogmanay’

New Years’ Eve celebrations are a big deal in Scotland where it’s called Hogmanay. The most widespread custom there is the practice of first-footing, which starts immediately after midnight. This involves being the first person to cross the threshold of a friend and give him symbolic gifts, such as food or whisky, intended to bring luck to the householder. Traditionally, tall, dark men are preferred as the first-foot! Even South of the Border, Brits (try to) sing an old Scottish song, Auld Lang Syne, where the full audience crosses over one another’s arms. But few people actually know the lyrics entirely…


Banging on Doors of the House with Christmas Bread on ‘New Year’s Eve’

Ireland is home to some of the most unique superstitions and this is especially true when it comes to ringing in the New Year. There is an Irish tradition of predicting the political future of the country by checking which way the wind blows at midnight on New Year’s Eve. If the wind is from the west, there is a chance that good fortune will reign that year. If the wind is from the east, however, the British will prevail. Another tradition involves banging on doors and walls of the house with Christmas bread to chase the bad luck out of the house and invite the good spirits in.


Eating Rice Pudding at ‘Nyttarsbukk’

In Sweden and Norway, it’s customary to celebrate the New Year by eating rice pudding. In fact, many hide an almond in the pudding and the person who finds it is promised prosperity in the new year. At midnight everyone starts to wish their friends, family, loved ones, and neighbors “Godt Nytt År, takk for det gamle” (Happy New Year, thank you for the past year). In addition, the New Year’s Eve tradition stands in front of the Norwegian people with a festive speech from the King of Norway. Worldwide, on January 1, people wake up late. But according to the Norwegian tradition, the less long you sleep, the more your luck wakes up.


Singing Gott Nytt År on ‘Nyårsafton‘

Swedish New Year’s Eve is nothing really original. Fireworks are common in the larger towns and usually start at midnight. When midnight does strike, people will hear “Gott Nytt År” from the Swedes along with a clink of glasses. Each year ends with a live broadcast from the Skansen open-air museum in Stockholm, where the bells chime and a New Year’s verse (interestingly enough by the British poet Lord Alfred Tennyson) is solemnly declaimed to the nation. According to Swedes, there’s something nice and secure about rounding off the year in front of the TV in the living room.


Casting Molten Tin into Water on ‘Uudenvuodenaatto’

It’s a longtime Finnish tradition to predict the coming year by casting molten tin into a container of water, and then interpreting the shape the metal takes after hardening. Miniature tin horseshoes are melted in a pan and poured into a bucket of cold water. As the tin hits the water it cools and instantly resolidifies. The resulting random shapes are then interpreted to predict a person’s future health, wealth or happiness. A heart or ring shape means a wedding in the New Year; a ship forecasts travel; and a pig shape signifies plenty of food.


Smashing Plates at your Friends Doorsteps on ‘Nytårsaften’

Denmark on New Year’s Eve might be the only time you can smash your old plates and not get anyone angry at you for it. But you’re not throwing the plates in your own house, you’re going to the doorsteps of your friends and throw your plates to show how much you value them as a friend. It’s a measure of your popularity to find a heap of broken china on your doorstep at midnight – which presumably comes as some comfort while you’re clearing it up. On New Year’s Eve, Danes also stand on chairs and then jump off them at midnight. Leaping into January is supposed to banish bad spirits and bring good luck


Plunging in the Cold Sea on ‘Oudejaarsavond’

Scheveningen, the main resort town of the Netherlands, holds the swimming festival known as Nieuwjaarsduik (Polar Bear Plunge) every winter. On the first day, about 10,000 people come to the beach to plunge in the cold sea. In 89 locations on beaches and in lakes all over the country, each year around 30,000 people participate in this Nieuwjaarsduik, with a record 36,000 participants on January 1, 2012. Since 1998 Unox, a Unilever food brand often associated with winter, adopted the Nieuwjaarsduik and ever since it is tradition to wear Unox-branded winter caps and gloves.


Wishing a Happy New Year to Cows on ‘Nieuwjaarsdag’

There is a Belgian tradition for ensuring financial security in the coming year: the New Year sauerkraut at Liège. On 1 January it is the custom to start the year with a meal of sauerkraut, but the important thing is to place a coin under the plate first. In the same vein, in the Antwerp region, children traditionally go and sing to their neighbours on  New Year’s Day and are given sweets or money. Last, but not least, Walloon and Flemish farmers still observe the charming custom of rising early on 1st January and going out to stables and pens to say “Happy New Year” to the horses, cows, pigs and other domestic animals.


Eating Marzipan Chimney Sweeps for ‘Neijoerschdag’ Luxemburgers were mainly farmers 40 years ago; so meat and simple foods are traditional at New Year’s. This may vary from simple cold cuts – with ham, sausage, cheese and pâté – to a more elaborate dish of meat and fish. Both chimney sweeps and swine are thought to bring good luck for the forthcoming year; the giving of these lucky charms in marzipan form is a German tradition that some Luxemburgers have taken for their own. And how to toast? With Crémant, of course! Offered at midnight, with a small offering of onion soup or ham with salad to assuage any hunger pangs… what could be more Luxemburgish?


Yodeling (twice) with Headdress and Cowbells on ‘Silvester’

There is an iconic New Year custom from the Appenzell region which draws young people to yodel in the frozen countryside wearing a huge headdress and giant cowbells. The ‘Silvesterklaeuse‘, or ‘St Sylvester mummers’, as the practitioners are known, appear twice each year on December 31 and January 13, trooping from village to village to ring in the new year.The two dates go back to a 16th century dispute, when many locals opposed the new calendar proclaimed by Pope Gregory XIII setting December 31 as the new year and wanted to stick to January 13, in line with the old Julian calendar. So over the years, the region celebrates both.


Watching ‘A Dinner for One’ on ‘Silvester’

No one knows why the Germans are obsessed with watching a 1963 short comedic film called ‘Dinner For One‘ on New Year’s Eve, and yet the tradition remains wildly popular. This old British comedy sketch, about a lonely 90th birthday dinner, has been inexplicably embraced by Germans, and is broadcast in many homes during new year festivities. The film shows an old woman and her butler at a dinner table where they pretend her deceased friends are sitting. The butler asks, “The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?” The woman replies, “The same procedure as every year, James!” Then they start to drink…


Dancing the Waltz on ‘Sylvesterpfad’

It has long been a Philharmonic tradition at New Year to present a program consisting of the lively and at the same time nostalgic music from the vast repertoire of the Johann Strauss family and their contemporaries. The concert not only delights the audience in the Musikverein in Vienna, but also enjoys great international popularity worldwide. The State Opera and the Volksoper give gala performances of Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus”. And at the stroke of midnight people dance in the streets into the New Year to the strains of the famous Blue Danube Waltz.


Throwing Pots and Clothes out of the Window during ‘San Silvestro’

The star of the dinner is lentils, symbolizing money and good fortune for the coming year. Traditionally, the dinner in many parts of Italy also includes a cotechino, a large spiced sausage, or a zampone, stuffed pig’s trotter. There are a number of funny superstitions in Italy to accomplish on New Year’s Eve, such as wearing red underwear to attract good luck or throwing pots, pans, and clothes out of the window to let go of the past and move toward the future. It is also customary to light a Christmas log before New Year’s Day to turn away evil spirits (who don’t like fire) and invite the Virgin Mary to warm newborn Jesus…

Czechia – Slovakia

Singing the Czechoslovak Anthem on ‘Silvestr’

The end of the year in Czechia and in Slovakia proceeds just like anywhere else in the world. It is usually celebrated with other people: at various parties, in restaurants, pubs, clubs, discos, and on streets and squares. In both countries all major TV stations have entertainment shows before and after the midnight countdown, which is followed by the National anthem of each country. The Presidents of the Republics give their New Year speech in the morning. In recent years however the Czechoslovak national anthem is played at midnight, in honor of the shared history of both nations.


Sleigh Riding after ‘Sylwester’

New Year’s Eve, known in Poland as Sylwester, marks the start of the carnival period, which features celebratory events like balls and parties. Polonaise is a widespread dance in carnival parties. It is always a first dance not only at New Year balls, but also it is the dance which opens majority of Carnival parties in Poland. New Year’s Eve is also celebrated with the popular tradition originally organised among the Polish aristocracy of kulig (sleigh rides). It is a cavalcade of horse-pulled sleighs and sledges from one house to another to entertain and bring hearty meals and folk dances.


Telling Fortune inside Dumplings on ‘Szilveszter’

There is no lack of superstitions in Hungary when it’s time to see the old year out and usher in the new. On New Year’s Eve, for instance, it’s customary to make a lot of noise to scare off the evil spirits. Traditionally a bullwhip with a cracker was used to make a loud noise, but these days horns and other noisemakers are just as effective. Some of the customs and traditions on New Year’s Eve, like fortune telling, were carried out with great passion. Girls put pieces of paper with boy’s names written on them inside dumplings. The first dumpling to rise to the top of the water during cooking contained the name of their future husband.


Making Predictions with Hidden Items under Plates on ‘Naujieji Metai‘

In Lithuania, people stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve because sleeping through the beginning of the new year will bring bad luck. Lithuanians say “the way you’ll meet the new year is the way you will spend it”! An important part of New Year’s Eve is making predictions: young people usually sit around a table, puts key, ring, little glass of water or some money on the plates and cover them. Then mix the plates. One by one the players choose plates. The one that gets a ring will get married, water means one will get an alcoholic husband/wife, a key means one will move to a new home, and money means one will be rich.


Hiding a Coin in a Cake on ‘Vecgada vakars’

New Year is widely celebrated in Latvia due to strong traditions since Soviet times, when New Year was a big holiday, not Christmas. Now both are equally celebrated. But there is nothing really special to report about. There is usually common celebration on Dome square with hot wine, stage with musicians playing and TV widescreen. This celebration is naturally followed by wild parties in clubs and pubs. One New Year’s tradition in Latvia is to bake a cake with a coin wrapped inside whoever gets the coin will have a prosperous year.


Eating Seven Times on ‘Vana-aastaõhtu’

In (leaner) decades past, Estonians followed a custom of trying to eat seven times on New Year’s Day, to ensure abundant food in the coming year. Some believe that people should eat seven, nine, or twelve times on New Year’s Eve because these are lucky numbers in Estonia. It is believed that for each meal consumed, the person gains the strength of that many men the following year. (If a man ate seven times, he was supposed to have the strength of seven men the following year). Modern-day celebrations here, however – especially in the party-hearty capital of Tallinn – tend to revolve as much around alcohol as food.


Placing Corn in front of a Rooster to get Married after ‘Kaliady’

During the traditional celebration of Kaliady, which is a traditional winter festival with Pagan roots lasting from 25 December to 7 January, still-unmarried women play games to predict who will be wed in the New Year. In one traditional game, a pile of corn is placed before each woman, and a rooster is let go; whichever pile the rooster approaches first reveals who will be the first to marry. In another game, a married woman hides certain items around her house for her unmarried friends to find: the woman who finds bread will supposedly marry a rich husband – the one who finds a ring will marry a handsome one…


Dressing up as a Woman on ‘Malanka’

Ukrainians so much like New Year that they celebrate it twice. The first one follows the Gregorian calendar and falls on January 1st, when Ukrainians join in with the rest of the world in the craziness of fireworks and midnight parties. The second one follows the Julian calendar and falls on January 14th with the name Malanka. On this night in Ukraine, carolers traditionally go from house to house playing pranks or acting out a small play, with a bachelor dressed in women’s clothing leading the troop. The first thing done in the houses is to have the eldest male throw wheat grains around the entrance to bring happiness to the family.


Whispering to Animals on ‘Anul Nou’

Romania may win the contest of the weirdest tradition for New Year’s Day. In the morning of New Year’s Day, Romanian farmers actually try to hear their animals talk in a ritual which, if successful, signifies not just a Doctor Dolittle gift for communicating with our furry relatives but good luck for the coming year. It is indeed believed that animals get the power of speech that one day. But it is considered bad luck if farmers manage to decipher the animal talk. Do you think your dog or cat has something to tell you? Let’s give a try on your next New Year (hangover) Day!


Taking part in the Bear Dance on ‘Anul Nou‘

There is a tradition, in Bucovina and Moldova on New Year’s Eve, called Ursul (the Bear Dance) which is a widely practiced dance where dancers are dressed as bears. In the past, a real bear was involved and its dance was supposed to purify and fertilize the soil for the next year. The carol of the dance says: “Dance well, you old bear, And I’ll give you bread and olives”. The bear cult is of Geto-Dacian origins – back then, the bear was a sacred animal. The person wearing the bear costume is accompanied by fiddlers and followed by a whole procession of characters, among them a child dressed-up as the bear’s cub.


Climbing up on a Tree on ‘Novoletni dan’

In all parts of Slovenia it is still believed that whoever gets up early on New Year’s Day will get up early the whole year through. And whoever lies in bed on New Year’s Morning will get out of bed late the whole year. The local people of Kocevje once used to believe the following: “If you want to find out what is going to happen in the New Year, then climb up a wooden fence or a tree on New Year’s Eve (during the daytime). However, you must not be carrying anything made of metal with you”: no keys, no metal buttons on your jacket or hobnail in your boots.


Eating Roast Pork on ‘Nova Godina’

There is no special tradition for New Year’s Day. People prepare different dishes like, roast pork, wild boar or rabbit in sweet-acidic sauce, sarme (it is meat in field of cabbage with smoky ham), pašticada with njoki (gnocchi with beef meat in sweet-acidic sauce with plum). On the contrary lobster and crab are considered bad luck and not to be eaten on New Year’s Eve because they move backwards and could lead to setbacks. Chicken is also a no-no because they scratch backward, and eating any winged fowl is disadvised because this could portend one’s good luck flying away.


Decorating Trees and Houses on ‘Novogodišnja jelka’

According to ancient Slav traditions imported in Serbia, celebrating the New Year is a result of the feast of the birth of the Sun, and all the traditions were intended to “help” the Sun to overcome the darkness and the cold, so the nature can wake up again. During the New Year holidays, Serbians especially decorate the interior and exterior of the house. Serbs decorate trees, Novogodišnja jelka, at New Year’s Eve, rather than at Christmas Eve. The custom that doors, table and furniture in the home are decorated with evergreen sprigs, bay leaves or mistletoe, serve to suggest that soon, after a long winter, everything will go green again.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Partying during Two Days on ‘Nova Godina’ and ‘Drugi dan Nove Godine’

In Bosnia, New Year’s Day is so good that it lasts two days! New Year is widely celebrated in Bosnia and Herzegovina on January 1st and 2nd. Streets are decorated for New Year’s Eve and there are firework shows and concerts in all large cities. Restaurants, clubs, cafes and hotels are usually full of guests and they organise New Year’s Eve parties. In Sarajevo, people gather in the Square of children of Sarajevo where a local rock band entertains them. Several trumpet and rock groups play until the early morning hours. At midnight there is a big fireworks show.


Hiding Coins in Banitza on ‘Doček Nove Godine’

Bulgarians have their special customs for New Year’s Day. On the first day of the year, there is the custom of preparing banitza, a traditional Bulgarian dish which can be roughly described as a cheese pie, with lucky charms. These charms may be coins or small symbolic objects such as pieces of a dogwood twig with a bud, symbolising health or longevity. More recently, people have started writing fortunes on small pieces of paper and wrapping them in tin foil, after which they are put in the New Year’s banitza. It brings good luck to the one who finds it in their pie.


Preparing Baklava for ‘Viti i Ri’

The New Year is quite a major celebration time for all Albanians everywhere. Preparations for New Year’s Eve in Albania start long before 31 December. It starts with the Christmas tree which in Albania is known as “New Year’s Tree” or “New Year’s Pine”. Baklava is always present on Albanian tables on New Year’s Day. Its taste adds sweetness to the celebration. Per tradition, Albanian grandmothers begin preparing the dough long before the long-awaited day and maintain that a piece of baklava should be eaten by all in order to have a lucky year ahead. Did you know that Baklava can contain as many as 90 layers of dough rolled out flat?


Attending concerts in Budva on ‘Novogodišnja jelka’

New Year celebrations in Montenegro begin on December 31 and end on January 2. Traditionally every New Years Eve, concerts are organised in Budva to take place in the square in front of the old town, for festivities which can last for three days! There are special events for children, classical music concerts with many popular singers and music bands from the region. During the time when Montenegro was under communist control, the communist government didn’t like St. Nicholas or Santa Claus, so they had their own version called Grandfather Frost or Christmas Brother, who came on New Year’s Eve.

North Macedonia

Taking Part in the Mud Parade after ‘Novogodišnata noḱ’

In the city of Vevchani, 180 kilometers southwest from capital Skopje, there is a carnival with troop covered with mud parades on 13 January. The Vevchani carnival is 1,400 years old and is held every year on the eve of the feast of Saint Basil (14 January), which also marks the beginning of the New Year according to the Julian calendar, observed by the Macedonian Orthodox Church. Revelers covered with mud symbolize people from the bottom. The Vevchani carnival with its old customs presents various pagan rituals, bible issues and political satire of actual events seen through the masks of the participants.


Keeping Dishes Dirty on ‘Paramoní Protochroniás’

New Year’s Eve in Greece has many traditions. During the family dinner, the hostess puts some of her jewelry in a plate and serves it in the side of the table, as a symbol of the coming year’s prosperity. After the dinner is over, the dish is not washed until the next day. The reason for that is that Saint Vassilis (Greek Santa Claus) is awaited during the New Year’s Eve and it is considered common courtesy to leave some food for the traveler who visits the house to bring the presents during the night. Because Greeks consider the New Year lucky, it is the custom to participate in games of chance on the first day.


Wearing Red Underwear on ‘Yılbaşı Gecesi’

What better way to bring luck to your loved ones than by wearing red underneath your New Year’s party outfit. The practice is especially popular in Turkey, where stalls selling red lingerie appear over the festive period and sell out fast. Due to consumer demand and those who want to relieve themselves of the stress of the crisis and hope for better luck, the sales of red underwear increase by 10 to 20 percent in the days before New Year’s Eve. The Turkish tradition says that wearing new, red underwear on New Year’s Eve brings good luck. What a funny tradition!

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