An image of a Chinese temple, surrounding by the forest, with fireworks in the background.

How Different Traditions Commemorate the Coming of a New Year

Celebrating the coming of the new year is universal. Happening days or months after January 1st, different countries’ traditions and beliefs welcome the new year and are deeply rooted in history and culture.

No religion or culture is left out when it comes to celebrating the new year, each with its own traditions. It’s a time for family and friends to come together, even with neighbours. People all over the world welcome a prosperous new year with open arms.

Symbolically, it’s also a time when people leave the past and look to the future.

Chinese New Year

A photograph of a Chinese temple decorated with rows of red lanterns and red banners.
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The most important holiday in China, based on the Chinese lunar calendar, is the day that honours the household and heavenly deities and ancestors. Families are brought together for bountiful feasts and celebrations.

China continues its tradition of celebrating the new year between January 21st and February 20th, lasting for 15 days.

The ancient lunar calendar is a religious and social guide that lived through the dynasties. The calendar is never permanently set. It resets according to which emperor held power and varied from region to region. It’s also based on the lunar phases, solar solstices and equinoxes. Yin and Yang, principles that make a harmonious world, also set the calendar.

How It Began

A mythical beast, Nian, ate livestock, crops and people on the eve of the new year. A wise old man discovered Nian was afraid of the colour red and loud noises.

People began putting up red lanterns and red scrolls on their windows to stop Nian from coming inside. They also crackled bamboo to scare Nian away.

The beast never showed again, and the Chinese found a new reason and new ways to celebrate their new year.

Pre-Chinese New Year Preparations

The Laba Festival is held on the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month and marks the beginning of the Spring Festival. People give sacrifices to their ancestors, prey to heaven and earth for a good harvest and luck for their families. Additionally, it’s the day when Sakyamuni realised the truth and became the Buddha.

Sakyamuni, a prince of ancient northern India, couldn’t bear the local people suffering from illness and Brahman. He left his wealthy lifestyle to seek enlightenment. Six years later, he found the truth about Buddhism while sitting under the Bodhi tree. In those six years, he only ate rice.

Eating Laba Congee, a porridge of rice, beans, dried nuts, bean curd and meat, commemorates Buddha’s enlightenment.

The Little Year, of the Festival of the Kitchen God, occurs a week before the lunar New Year. The Kitchen God oversees the moral character of each household. Burning a paper picture of the Kitchen God sends the god’s spirit to Heaven, where he reports on the family’s conduct over the past year. Placing another picture of the Kitchen God next to the stove welcomes the spirit back. During this time, people express their good wishes to say goodbye to the old year and welcome the new.

The dates of Little Year differ in regions. In southern China, it’s the 24th day of the 12th lunar month. In northern China, it’s the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month.

The 24th day of the 12th lunar month is for winter cleaning in all households. Also known as ‘sweeping the dust’, it represents a wish to put away old things and welcome the new.

Before Chinese New Year’s Eve, people buy New Year’s food and snacks, decorations, clothes and fireworks.

Chinese New Year’s Eve

People start decorating their homes with red lanterns, red spring couplets, paper cuttings and New Year’s paintings to keep away evil and pray for blessings, longevity, health and peace.

The offering of sacrifices to the ancestors shows respect and piety. Meat, wine, joss sheets and joss paper are placed in front of a shrine or grave.

Families reunite for a mandatory ‘reunion dinner’. Several generations come together, sit around a table and enjoy food and each other’s company.

Accompanied with dinner is watching the CCTV New Year Gala between 8 PM and 12 AM. It features traditional, folk and pop performances by China’s best singers, dancers and acrobats.

After the reunion dinner, parents give their children red envelopes for good health, growth and students in the new year. Inside the envelopes is lucky money because red is China’s lucky colour. Therefore, money in red envelopes brings good luck.

Then, shousui, meaning ‘to keep watch for the new year’, starts. People used to stay awake all night, but now, they stay up until the midnight fireworks and firecrackers die down.

Chinese New Year’s Day

Families enjoy the fireworks and firecrackers all around China. The louder the crackers, the better and luckier it’ll be for farming and businesses.

On day one, people put on their new clothes and wish gougxi, meaning ‘greeting’ or ‘best wishes’, to wish one another luck and happiness. It’s customary for younger generations to visit their elders and wish them health and longevity. Additionally, people watch the lion and dragon dances and attend Buddhist temples for traditional activities.

On day two, married daughters visit their parents’ home with gifts and red envelopes. They offer sacrifices to the God of Wealth for a luckier and more prosperous year.

From days three to seven, people visit relatives and friends, even visiting their tombs. However, others see it as bad luck to be outside on the third day when evil spirits roam around. This is also when people sweep their homes. Sweeping on the first and second days means sweeping away good luck from the celebrations.

Day eight is when people return to work. Eight is the luckiest number in China. Businesses like to open on the eighth day of the lunar year.

On day 15 is the Lantern Festival to mark the end of Spring Festival celebrations. Some send glowing lanterns into the sky, others onto the sea, rivers or adrift in lakes.

Nowruz – Persian/Iranian New Year

A photograph of all seven items in the 'haft-seen', with a mirror, goldfish, Qur'an, and lit candle added.
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Between generations and within families, Nowruz promotes the value of people and solidarity. Meaning ‘new day’, it falls on the first day of Spring and lasts for two weeks.

The Iranian calendar is a solar calendar. Therefore, the Earth’s movements around the sun determine the calendar.

The first day starts with the vernal equinox. This is when the sun is exactly above the equator, day and night are of equal length and the sun’s annual pathway and the celestial equator intersect.

This isn’t, however, a solely Iranian celebration. It’s celebrated universally for new beginnings and prosperity. It welcomes the future and sheds away the past, done by a deep cleaning of homes and closets and buying new clothes.

In 2010, the UN recognized Nowruz as an international holiday.

How It Started

Nowruz dates from around 3,000 years ago. It’s deeply rooted in Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion that predates Christianity and Islam, one of the world’s oldest religions. However, the borders of Iran don’t confine Nowruz. It’s celebrated by non-Iranians around the world.

After the 1979 revolution, Persia became the Islamic Republic of Iran. The new government tried to decrease the level of Nowruz celebrations. Its pre-Islamic roots led to its removal. The possibility of Nowruz not occurring in the future resulted in a furious pushback that couldn’t be ignored.

It continues to be a loved and universal celebration embedded deep within Persian culture.

Preparations for Nowruz

Preparations start three weeks before the vernal equinox.

A very serious spring cleaning gets rid of unnecessary clutter and grime to start fresh in the new year. Families leave space for haft-seen, items that symbolize a different hope for the new year. According to tradition, these seven items are mandatory:

  • Sabzeh: a sprout of grass that grows in the weeks leading to the holiday to absorb the negative energy in each home, a symbol for birth and renewal.
  • Senjed: dried food, ideally from the lotus tree, symbolizes love.
  • Sib: applies for beauty and health.
  • Seer: garlic symbolizes medication and taking care of oneself.
  • Samanu: vinegar for patients and wisdom that comes with ageing.
  • Sumae: crushed sour red berries (a Persian spice) for the sunrise of a new day.

Some also include a mirror, symbolizing reflection, or the Qur’an or poetry books for education and enlightenment.

Chaharsharb Soori, or ‘Red Wednesday’, is on the last Wednesday of the year. In public places, bonfires are set up for people to leap over as a cleansing ritual. The ritual allows you to forgive others, forget your resentments and have a fresh start for the new year.

In Zoroastrianism, light and fire are essential elements for sustaining life, a wish for enlightenment and happiness.

Welcoming the New Year

The new year is welcomed with clean homes and new clothes. People visit families, friends and neighbours, and share meals and host parties.

Among the main dishes are Subzi Pollo Maki (fried fish filled with green herbs and with rice), Dolmeh Barg (cooked meat and rice rolled in grape leaves) and Fesenjan (a meat stew, of chicken or duck, in a pomegranate and walnut sauce). For desserts, it includes baqlava (flakey pastry sweetened with rosewater) and naan bereng (cookies made from rice flour).

The most important aspect of food is that it’s shared with family, friends and neighbours.

On the 13th day, families take the sabzeh from the haft-seen to a natural body of water. They place it in the water and let it float away. This releases the old and negative energy and welcomes the new and positive.

Additionally, on the same day, families gather at their oldest family member’s home to pay their respects. Children walk up to homes and bank on cooking pots with spoons. They won’t stop until someone comes out and puts something sweet inside the pot.

Rosh Hashanah

A photograph of a Jewish man sounding the shofar, with many Jews surrounding him as they head to and from the temple.
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Meaning ‘head of the year’ or ‘first of the year’, Rosh Hashanah is one of the holiest days in Judaism.

It begins on the first day of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, and ends on the second day. Usually, it happens in September or October.

In addition to commemorating the creation of the world, it brings a 10-day period of self-examination and patience: the 10 Days of Awe. Also known as the Days of Judgement, God will judge all creatures, whether they will or die in the coming year. Each Jew reflects on their relationship with God.

During the Days of Awe, God writes the names of the righteous in the Book of Life and condemns the wicked to death on Rosh Hashanah. If someone is between pure and wicked, they have until Yom Kippur to perform teshuvah or repentance.

Many consider Rosh Hashanah and its surrounding days as a time for prayer, good deeds, reflecting on past mistakes and making amends with others.

According to Jewish scripture, there is a similar day and month to Rosh Hashanah, but it doesn’t share the same name. In the biblical passage Leviticus (23:24 – 25), God told Moses: “Say to the Israelites: ‘On the first day of the seventh month you are to have a day of sabbath rest, a sacred assembly commemorated with trumpet blasts. Do no regular work, but present a food offering to the Lord.’”. It’s similar to how Rosh Hashanah is celebrated.

The earliest reference to Rosh Hashanah is from the Jewish legal text, the Mishnah, dating to 200 SD.

Traditions of Rosh Hashanah

Observers of Rosh Hashanah greet one another with the Hebrew phrase ‘Shana Tova’ or ‘L’shana Tova’, meaning ‘good year’ or ‘for a good year’.

A ‘shofar’ is a trumpet made from a ram or kosher animal’s horn, regularly sounded around synagogues. Sounding it is more of a commandment than a tradition. It’s done every morning of Rosh Hashanah unless it falls on the Sabbath. Many view it as a call to repent sins and seek forgiveness from God. Moreover, it’s a reminder to Jews that God is their King.

An important tradition is lighting candles in the evening. Women and girls in the family light the candles at different times, before sundown on Tishrei 1st and after nightfall on Tishrei 2nd. The lit candles welcome the Jewish holidays with warmth and light.

Tashlich is, symbolically, casting away sins in a body of water. Following prayers, Jews throw bread into the water or shake out the corners of their clothing.

Among the traditions is to eat round challah bread. The bread’s circular shape symbolized the natural circle of life and the crown of God. Raisins added to the dough mean a sweet new year, along with dipping the bread in honey, not salt, and apples. Eating applies is said to have originated with the Ashkenazi Jews in Europe, who use the fall fruit in their new year’s meals. Sometimes, fish heads are served and eaten. Due to the holiday meaning ‘head of the year’, the fish heads are in the hope that the year will be as bountiful as the fish in the sea.

Work is prohibited during Rosh Hashanah. Many attend special services at their synagogues and then celebrate with festive means.

Vaisakhi – The Sikh New Year Festival

A photograph of the Viasakhi parade, where five men dressed as the 'Beloved Five' walk the streets, leading the procession.
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Vaisakhi marks the start of the Punjabi New Year. It’s celebrated on April 13th or 14th every year. It starts at a harvest festival in Punjab in northern India, and celebrates the year 1699, the year Sikhism became a collective faith.

Vaisakhi promotes justice and equality and the creation of a more equal and just society. Additionally, it’s an opportunity for Punjab farmers to give thanks for plentiful harvests and pray for another in the coming year.

There are five articles of faith:

  • Kesh: the practice of not cutting hair and daily meditation.
  • Kacchera: a specific type of undergarment.
  • Kongha: a small wooden comb kept in the hair.
  • Koda: an iron bracelet.
  • Kirpan: a curved sword.

Guru Gobind Singh and the Five Sikhs

In 1699, Sikhs all over Punjab gathered to celebrate the local harvest festival.

Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth guru, came out of his tent while carrying his sword. He asked crowd if there was anyone prepared to give their life for their religion. A young man stepped forward and went into the tent with the guru. The guru came out of the tent, alone, with his sword covered in blood. He asked for another devotee who is willing to sacrifice their life for their religion.

This occurred four times until five Sikhs went into the tent and everyone was worried about their sudden fate.

Together, all five men emerged from the tent, alive and unharmed, wearing turbans. They became known as the Panj Piare (‘Beloved Five’).

The guru baptized the five men into the Khalsa, a purified and reconstituted Sikh community that he initiated. It denotes the body of the initiated Sikhs and the community of all Sikhs.

The Panj Piare became the first members of the Khalsa.

Traditions of Vaisakhi

It begins with Sikhs visiting the gurdwara, a place of worship. Then, people start a day of traditions and celebration. They wear colourful and traditional clothing and take part in the parades in the streets, known as nagari kirtans. ‘Nagar’ means ‘town’ and ‘kirtan’ means ‘singing of hymns’ from the Guru Grouth Sahib (the Sikh Holy Book). During the parades, there’s a lot of singing, dancing and chanting.

Langar is the tradition of giving out free food and everyone in the community, rich and poor, comes together and shares a meal.

Bhangra is a traditional folk dance performed to the rhythm of a dhol (a type of drum). The dance dates to the 14th century when farmers danced to celebrate their harvest. As a result, it became part of the celebrations.

Many Sikhs choose Vaisakhi to be baptized into the Khalsa.

Normally, the big celebrations take place in the city of Anandpur Sahib in Punjab. It’s where Guru Gobind Singh established Khalsa.

The Origin of January 1st

A photograph of people in New York celebrating the New Year with confetti surrounding them.
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With many traditions following the lunar and solar calender, it does leave the question of how 1st became the universal New Year’s Day.

Celebrating the arrival of the new year started close to 4000 years ago in ancient Babylonia. Years went by and evolved, but it wasn’t until the Roman Empire that there was a needed change.

In the early Roman calendar, there were ten months and 304 days, said to have been created by Romulus in the eighth century BCE. Each new year began on the vernal equinox, which suggests the Romans followed a solar calendar.

King Numa Pompilius added the months Januvarius and Februarias.

Over the centuries, the Roman calendar fell out of sync with the sun.

In 46 BCE, Emperor Julius Caesar added 90 days to the Roman calendar for that year only. It was an attempt to realign the calendar with the sun and led to the introduction of the Julian calendar, which closely resembles the Gregorian calendar.

However, that wasn’t the first of Caesar’s changes. He declared the first day of Januvarius to be the first day of the year to honour Janus, the Roman God of Beginnings and the month’s namesake. Janus’s two faces allowed him to look into the past and the future.

Further evolution of the calendar led to January 1st becoming the universal New Year’s Day with its own traditions.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

An image of a Chinese temple, surrounding by the forest, with fireworks in the background.
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Celebrating the coming of the near extends to every religion and culture. It gives time to reflect on one’s past and then, to be ready for a new start.

Due to the rise in COVID-19 infections in late 2021, many countries cancelled their New Year’s celebrations. Parades and social gatherings were put to a stop and people stayed in their homes or visited those close to them, following their traditions.

This is the best reassurance that the new year will be prosperous with the coming advancements.

“To the old, long life and treasure; to the young, all health and pleasure.”

-Ben Johnson, English playwright.

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