The Myths and Legends Behind the New Year
Updated: Jan 1, 2022
New Year’s is the time when we usher out the ending of one year and welcome in the new. In the Gregorian calendar, this happens on the 1st of January, and has done so since Roman times, approximately 45 BC, when Julius Caesar moved the celebrations from the 1st of March. Other calendars mark the New Year on different dates. The Iranian celebration Nowruz has been marked on the 1st March since the 11th century. The Chinese New Year has been celebrated in China for over 3,500 years, though the precise date changes according to the lunar cycle.
With such a long and diverse history, it is little wonder that there are many aspects of New Year’s celebrations around the world (often an excuse to drink, celebrate, and watch an exceptional fireworks show) that have their basis in myth and superstition:
One Spanish tradition that has spread to many Spanish-speaking countries in South America is to eat twelve grapes at the stroke of midnight. Each grape represents a month of the coming year, and in some traditions, one grape should be eaten for each chime of the clock striking twelve. It is thought that if you manage to eat all twelve grapes, you will be lucky in the upcoming year, and that if you fail, you will face misfortune.
While this may have become a superstition, the origin of the tradition actually has very mundane routes – and has nothing to do with the supernatural at all. The superstition is said to have come from the French tradition of eating grapes and drinking champagne to welcome in the new year. People in Madrid began to mimic the tradition, and as it spread, people began to believe that the eating of the grapes was lucky.
There are hundreds of small tricks from around the world that claim to let you know your future, from throwing bones to a child’s paper ‘fortune teller.’ It’s not surprising to learn that some of these methods are tied into specific dates or holidays. For example, an old British tradition of peeling an apple on Halloween and throwing the skin over your shoulder is said to reveal the initial of your future husband.
In Finland, however, there is an unusual method of fortune telling traditionally performed on New Year’s Eve. Small pieces of metal (typically lead or tin) are placed in a spoon and melted over a candle. The molten metal is then dripped into a bowl of cold water, where it solidifies. The shape is then rotated in candlelight to form shadows. It is said that the shadows the metal casts will predict your future for the coming year. For example, if it forms a ring, then there will be a marriage, while if it looks like a boat or a plane it may represent travelling or holidays.
In Ecuador there is a tradition of burning an effigy called the año viejo on a bonfire. The effigy represents the old year – everything that you disliked or would have changed about it. They are often made in the shape of someone famous, either political figures, famous people or fictional characters. Leaping over this bonfire is thought to bring good luck.
Much like the eating of grapes at midnight, this is another superstition that originated from natural events – although the origins of this tradition are a tad more morbid. The ritual is said to have started in 1895, when a terrible epidemic hit the port city of Guayaquil. Coffins were stuffed with the clothes of the dead, and set alight, symbolising new beginnings and the purification of the disease.
While it may have been done symbolically, the burning of the clothes may have helped with the epidemic – destroying items that had been contaminated by the illness.
Ringing the Bells
In Japan, it is tradition to herald in the New Year by ringing the temple bells in an event known as Joya no Kane. The bells are rung 108 times, beginning on December 31st, with the final bell rung after midnight in the early hours of January 1st.
The bells are rung 108 times because this is the number of earthly temptations that according to Buddhist teachings, people must overcome in order to reach Nirvana. These can include such things as greed, falseness, egoism and cruelty. It is thought that by hearing the bells ring, people’s sins are wiped clean, and they are able to enter the new year with a fresh slate.
While the bells can be heard in temples across Japan, one of the most famous locations to hear the bells rung is in the province of Kyoto. In Kyoto at the temple of Chion-in, 17 monks are required to ring the temple’s immense, 70 tonne bell.
Not that most of us needed an excuse to celebrate in this fashion, but technically by getting drunk at New Year’s you may be honouring an old Egyptian festival.
The Egyptian calendar looked quite different to our own, and their New Year took place in summer, when the Nile flooded, bringing with it new life. During the first month of the new year, the Tekh festival, or the ‘festival of drunkenness’ was celebrated. The festival commemorated the survival of humanity from the attacks of the ferocious Sekhmet (the lion-headed warrior goddess).
While the god Ra, had initially set her to destroy humanity for their greed and cruelty, he changed his mind, deciding that if they were to teach humanity a lesson there must be humans still alive to have learned it. A large barrel of beer was dyed bright red and left in Sekhmet’s path. Believing that it was blood, the goddess drank it all, becoming sleepy and docile, returning to Ra and ending the slaughter.
As the name suggests, the festival was celebrated with revelry, excitement and, of course, alcohol.
One of the most famous ways of celebrating New Year’s, is of course, with fireworks. The magical, explosive displays are shown in capital cities across the world and can cost up to as much as £3.4 million. Much like the fireworks themselves, the tradition of firework displays on New Year’s Eve originates from China.
It was said that every New Year a terrifying creature emerged from its hiding place beneath the sea to sate its hunger. The creature, known as the Nian, would come inland. As food was sparse during winter, the Nian would travel to villages, consuming crops and livestock and (in the more terrifying accounts) children.
Every year the villagers would be forced to flee into the mountains to avoid the monster. One year, however, they learned that the creature could be held off by loud noises and the colour red. Once this was learned, the villagers stayed at home, banging drums, hanging up scarlet lanterns and, of course, combing the two with loud firecrackers.
Now days, of course, these superstitions and traditions tend to be less a genuine attempt to bring good fortune, or predict the coming year, and instead serve as a fun way to celebrate! They are used at parties, amongst other traditions such as the singing of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and New York’s Ball Drop, to celebrate everything good that has happened in the previous one, and hope that this coming year will be better.