We all like to get a little bit crazy at New Year’s. Letting loose as the old year winds down is a tradition all the way around the world. Christmas might be a time for family and religious ceremonies but, come New Year’s, most people are happy to throw off the old. It is a typically a night of celebration of the new beginning that the new year brings. In most Western countries, that means dancing the night away, drinking champagne, counting down the last few moments of the old year, and kissing the first stranger that comes to hand at midnight. It is a tradition that most of us hold dearly. Of course, the ritual wouldn’t be complete if you don’t ensure that the first day of the new year is spent worshipping their porcelain throne. It might be sloppy, but it’s tradition.
Getting wild and partying to the point of suffering with a terrible migraine on the first day of the year, might seem pretty perplexing if you think about it too hard, but it’s not the most disturbing New Year’s tradition in the world. Not by a long shot. All over the world, people celebrate New Year’s Eve in some pretty strange and often disturbing ways. It is hard to imagine that people from different cultures experience this holiday so differently. From ancient times, people have been celebrating the New Year with rituals and festivities that vary from quirky to outright disturbing.
15. In Ecuador, They Burn Effigies…
At midnight on New Year’s Eve people in Ecuador haul large paper and straw dolls into the streets and set them on fire. Families might make their own dolls out of newspaper and a cheap mask, while giant float-like figures are paraded in the streets before meeting their own fiery end. The figures are usually of prominent politicians or celebrities but can also be fictional characters, like, for example, SpongeBob SquarePants, Spiderman, or Shrek.
The tradition reportedly comes from the need to burn the clothes and coffins of the infected during epidemics and has evolved into a way of symbolically cleansing the bad from the old year and going into the new year with a clean slate. Although, why sacrificing SpongeBob to the flames will cleanse bad vibes is anyone’s guess. For extra fortune in the New Year, Ecuadorians will jump through the flames of the burning effigies twelve times.
14. …And Men Dress Up As Their Widows
Another tradition in Ecuador is for men to dress as the “widows” of the effigies that have been burned. Alternatively, some call them the widows of the old year. Either way, it involves dressing in short skirts and revealing tops, along with a bright wig, and harassing local drivers. Men will gather in groups of friends, all dressed as widows, and dance in the streets. They will deliberately block traffic, in the hopes of forcing car drivers to pay them a few coins to get through.
13. Fight Your Neighbor In Peru
The festival of Takanakuy may happen on Christmas morning, but the intention is to start the New Year on the right foot, and with a right hook. In the city of Santo Tomas, relatives and neighbors will drink a ton, don colorful ski masks, and then head together to the local bullfighting ring to settle their differences the old-fashioned way. Men, women, and even children will wrap their hands with brightly colored scarves, then square off and whack the heck out of each other.
As Santo Tomas is extremely isolated from judges, juries, and policemen, this festival can serve as a means of settling legal grudges and finding “justice,” as the winner of a fight is considered the victor of any given dispute between combatants. Everyone gets in on the fun, however, whether they have a case to settle or not. And, since they aren’t barbarians, referees with bullwhips stand nearby to make sure no one takes a grudge too far.
12. Bear Dancing In Romania
Romania is famous as the home of Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Count Dracula. However, the week between Christmas and New Year belongs to another kind of magical creature, one that might look fierce, but in fact, is dancing to rid the world of evil spirits. The bear dancers of Romania are men and women who dress in real bear skins, along with thick red tassels, and often a metal ring through the unfortunate animal’s nose.
The tradition comes from almost a hundred years ago when nomadic Roma would bring their pet bears to the villages and force them to “dance” for coins. No one knows when the switch was made from real bears to dancing with bearskin cloaks, but this is most likely the origin of the “bear tamer” who dances along with the bears. The troupe goes from houses to restaurants, dancing and singing to chase away evil spirits of the old year. They render this service for tips of money, liquor, and cubes of pig fat.
11. Ancient Eygpt Drank The Night Away
The people of Ancient Egypt brought in the New Year in a way that most modern people would recognize – with a Festival of Drinking. However, it wouldn’t be suitable for this article if they didn’t take it to disturbing lengths.
The origin of this festival is described in a religious text known as The Book of the Heavenly Cow. As the story goes, at one point humankind lived alongside the gods and was ruled by the god Ra. When Ra became old, humans got uppity and decided to try and overthrow him. This led Ra to punish humans, by setting the goddess Hathor on them. She chased them into the desert with the intention of ending them all.
When Ra decided enough people had met their end, he poured thousands of gallons of dyed red beer into the fields, so that Hathor believed she had flooded the world with blood. Delighted, she began to drink the beer and eventually passed out. And thus the human race was spared. So, on the first day of their calendar, the Egyptians would gather in temples and drink until they fell unconscious. Instead of sleeping until noon and then stumbling to the closest fast food place in the morning, they would be woken by horns and drums, and immediately worship the wrathful goddess.
10. The Swiss Get All Dressed Up
If you live in Switzerland, December 31st marks one of the two annual visits of the Silvesterklaeuse, or St. Sylvester’s mummers, and possibly a day to dread above all others. The mummers dress in either elaborate traditional costumes, or in full-length coats made of ivy or conifer branches. They cover their faces with masks reminiscent of either a possessed porcelain doll or an evil pinecone-possessed grinch. They then top this ensemble with either a large, prickly wreath or an even larger wooden headdress depicting scenes of village life. The outfit isn’t complete without several giant cowbells, roughly the size of watermelons, altogether weighing around 50 pounds.
Once the mummers are suitably dressed, they walk through the snow from village to village, and ring in the New Year with their massive bells. It’s hard to say who suffers more: the mummers themselves, or the innocent people who come across them in the snowy dark. As if this custom wasn’t disturbing enough, the Swiss also reportedly drop cream or ice cream on the ground at on New Year’s Eve in order to bring luck for the New Year. Just plain monstrous.
9. Denmark Is Quirky
Denmark has a slew of peculiar traditions they follow on New Year’s Eve. The Danish, along with millions of people in Germany, Norway, Australia, South Africa, Sweden, and elsewhere, will watch the 12-minute British comedy sketch Dinner for One, which is broadcast every year. The show is the most watched TV program in the world. Virtually unknown in Britain, the classic comedy following an alcoholic butler and a handful of imaginary friends is adored by much of Europe. In fact, when Denmark’s broadcasters decided not to show it in 1985 there was a tremendous public outcry and so it’s been showing each year ever since.
Warmed up by humor, Danes will collect their chipped and broken crockery to visit their friends’ homes, where they will smash the plates against front doors in friendship. A pile of broken porcelain on a doorstep at New Year is the mark of a very popular Danish person. Finally, as the countdown begins, Danes will climb onto their furniture, so that at the moment of midnight, they can “leap” – literally and figuratively – into the New Year.
8. Chileans Spend New Year’s Eve With Those Who Have Passed
In a genuinely creepy (or heartwarming, depending on your viewpoint) tradition, many families in Chile will spend New Year’s Eve in cemeteries with their recently deceased loved ones. The families will bring food and drink and light small fires so that they can pass the New Year in the company of their passed loved ones.
The practice is fairly young, as traditionally cemeteries would usually be closed to visitors on New Year. However, around 20 years ago, one family jumped the fence of their local graveyard so that they could celebrate the holiday with their deceased father. Rather than punish them, local authorities were moved by the gesture, and have since allowed the cemeteries to remain open on New Year’s Eve. They have even encouraged other families to join in. Locals consider it to be a peaceful and lucky way of bringing in the New Year and around 5000 people take part each year.
7. Estonians Eat The Night Away
Estonians believe you should eat either 7, 9, or even 12 meals on New Year’s Eve. If you manage this gastronomic feat you will have the strength and vitality of 7 (or 9, or 12) men in the coming year, as well as ensuring an abundance of food for yourself and your family. These are the lucky numbers of Estonia, so if you think you could be happy with the strength of only five men, you’ll have to think again. These won’t be tiny plates of salad either. The meals traditionally include boiled hogshead, sauerkraut, and blood sausage.
One saving grace for the bellies of the locals is the custom of leaving food on your plate with each meal at New Year, as an offering for ancestors and other spirits who may visit the house that night.
6. Fireworks Backfire Around The World
One of the most disturbing methods of celebrating New Year’s Eve is also one of the most ubiquitous, but it’s a custom that most people take for granted. Fireworks are a traditional part of New Year’s for cultures all over the world, from Germany to China. In fact, they are so much a part of the celebration that people who would never dream of shooting off guns in honor of the coming New Year (which is another common and dangerous celebratory practice) are more than happy to let their children light little paper tubes filled with gunpowder in their own backyard.
Germany recently estimated that their national firework displays dumped 4000 tons of polluting particulates (such as soot and smoke) into the air. That is the equivalent of 15% of their annual vehicle emissions but released in a very small time period. So much for a New Year’s resolution to quit smoking.
Fireworks can and have caused major fires as well. The Volendam New Year’s fire in the Netherlands in 2001, for example, was caused by a sparkler that caught on some decorations in a cafe. The building was set ablaze, and 14 people lost their lives. Even without a major fire, thousands of people are injured by fireworks per year in the United States, and dozens are killed worldwide.
5. Dropping The Ball
Nobody celebrates the New Year like the USA and the most well-known national celebration is probably the ball drop in Times Square. An estimated one million people crowd into the Square to countdown until the moment the New Year arrives. The custom was started in 1908, and was inspired by the time balls that navigators used as a means of setting their ship’s chronometers accurately. Nothing very disturbing about that. But, in trying to appropriate the custom for local tastes, some regions may have gone too far.
Perhaps the most controversial New Year’s drop occurs in Brasstown, NC, where a live opossum is lowered inside a glass pyramid to mark the countdown. The creature is then released into the wild, presumably bewildered, but unharmed. However, an extremely diverse assortment of other objects – and people – are dropped all over the country. A bar in Key West Florida drops drag queen Gary “Sushi” Marion, sitting in a ruby red slipper. In Eastport, Maine, a 22-foot sardine is dropped. And in 2011, in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, the honored droppee was Snooki from Jersey Shore.
4. Rainbows Of Lucky Underwear In South America
Tradition takes an extra special interest in your knickers on New Year’s Eve in many countries. The color of said garments is supposed to influence the New Year and, of course, they must be newly purchased for the occasion. This is not at all an attempt by Big Underwear to influence the purchasing habits of a superstitious public.
Throughout South America, lucky New Year’s colors range from yellow (for wealth) to green (for hope). Some people even recommend you wear them inside out, back to front, or even on top of your clothes, for extra luck. These same people will probably have their cameras ready on the big night.
In Spain and Italy, red is the recommended color for New Year’s underwear. This tradition reportedly comes from medieval times, when men needed to wear red loincloths over their unmentionables to hide them from witches with X-ray vision and mischievous intentions.
3. Babylon Humbled The King
The New Year in Ancient Babylon was considered a holy time, known as the Akitu festival, and used to honor their most holy god, Marduk. The High Priest played an essential role during these festivities and, for the first 3-4 days, would recite plaintive prayers begging the god to protect his people.
During the fifth day of the festivities, however, he would get to have a little more fun. His priests would escort the king into the temple, where the High Priest represented Marduk himself. “Marduk” would remove the king’s jewelry, scepter, weapons, and crown. The king was expected to present himself in a humble way, and submit to the High Priest, who would slap him and pull his ears, attempting to make the king cry. Authentic tears were considered a sign of the king’s submission to Marduk, and not just that he was a crybaby. Once the king cried, the High Priest would return his scepter as a symbol that the god has extended his blessing of the monarch’s rule for another year.
2. In Siberia, They Planted A Tree
It will not be a surprise to anyone that New Year’s celebrations in Russia can go to extremes. However, even for that great frozen continent, the divers of the Diving Squad Rescue Service went above and beyond. More accurately, they went to the icy depths below. For centuries Russians had the same traditional fir tree that is common in Europe and America for Christmas. However, the custom was banned by the Soviets and only allowed to continue grudgingly as a secular tradition for New Year. So Russian children wait by the New Year’s tree for Grandfather Frost to deliver their presents.
Perhaps hoping to make the venerable old elf more comfortable during his visit, in 2014 the Diving Squad Rescue Service, situated in Siberia’s coldest region, planted and decorated a New Year tree at the bottom of a frozen lake. The air temperatures at the time were around 49F. The divers used this feat as a training exercise, in case they were called upon to rescue anyone from frozen waters over the winter. The temperatures were so low the divers had to take special precautions to ensure that water did not freeze in their lungs during the dive.
1. The Aztecs Committed Sacrifice
The Ancient Aztecs didn’t seem to need a special reason to commit sacrifice. They considered it a necessary part of almost every festival, and the festival marking the beginning of the year was no different. Following a period of fasting, the festival of Atlacacauallo, for the rain god Tlaloc, would begin. As Tlaloc was responsible for water and the fertility of the earth, making him happy would ensure good crops for the rest of the year.
Unfortunately, the Aztecs believed his happiness was influenced by sacrificing young people, usually slaves, in gruesome ways. The children would be dressed up and carried to the priests in litters decorated with flowers. If they cried on the way, it was considered a sign of abundant rains to come. If they didn’t cry, the townspeople would pinch them until they did. Still, in some ways these children were fortunate. In the next festival of the year that honored Tlaloc, the proper ritual required the priests to injure the sacrificial victims.
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