New Year traditions across Europe
New Year’s is one of the only holidays celebrated by nearly every country and is almost universally a time for family, friends and festivities. In Europe, this sense of fellowship and celebration lives on in unique traditions, both historic and modern.
Same program as every year
With the advent of radio and television, many customs have sprung up in European countries surrounding their state broadcasting programs leading up to midnight. Generally, most European countries televise a collection of variety shows, music concerts, and dramatic pieces to enliven tiring minds and entertain those seeking refuge inside from the cold. For some countries, however, New Year’s Eve just wouldn’t be the same without the specific shows and programs they broadcast annually.
Undoubtedly, the most famous New Year’s annual rerun is a version of the British comedy sketch “Dinner for One,” written by Lauri Wylie. Fairly simple and made up largely of physical comedy, the program follows the story of Miss Sophie, an upper-class woman celebrating her 90th birthday, along with her elderly butler, James, who is impersonating her four guests. Hilarity ensues when a different alcoholic drink is served every course, and James is obligated to drink for each guest, becoming more comical as the night progresses. In 1963, a performance of this sketch was recorded by the German television station Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) with the original English dialogue and the addition of an introduction in German. After being occasionally rerun in Germany for nearly a decade, the comedy became a New Year’s Eve fixture in 1972.
The popularity of “Dinner for One” has spilled over into other countries, and the sketch is broadcast every New Year’s Eve in Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Luxembourg, Sweden, and recently Australia and South Africa (also in Norway Dec. 23). Sweden and Denmark declined to show the program at different times, and in both cases, large numbers of complaints from viewers compelled TV stations to bring back annual showings. Due to its fame, the comedy is considered the most frequently repeated TV program as documented by the Guinness World Records (normally rerun up to 15 times a year in Germany alone). Ironically, despite being a popular British sketch, “Dinner for One” is relatively unknown to much of the English-speaking world. In fact, many British people are often surprised and confused when Germans quote the ever-popular catchphrase, “Same procedure as every year,” in its original English.
Playing the waiting game
New Year’s Eve is often considered one of the most auspicious days of the year, foretelling how the next year will play out. In Greece and Turkey, participation in chance games, such as cards and dice is encouraged, with the belief that they stimulate more luck and prosperity in the new year. While community games are often organized in public places, such as clubs and coffee shops, most families choose to whittle away the time before midnight by playing games at home with low-stake bets of pocket change or sweets. Lotteries raise money as more people test their luck, and in Turkey there is even an annual tradition of watching state TV channels announce the winning numbers of the New Year’s national lottery just before midnight.
At the stroke of midnight
For most, the traditions surrounding the ushering in of a new year are fairly simple: a hug/kiss to loved ones and a toast of champagne to the new year. While most European countries also follow the same simple rituals, they are often accompanied by other traditions specific to their country.
Fireworks have always played a large part in New Year’s celebrations in Europe, and today many larger European cities host their own magnificent displays. London boasts one of the most distinctive displays, centered on Big Ben and the London Eye. With each chime at midnight, fireworks burst out of the clock, and afterward, the Ferris wheel acts as a foundation for the main event, set to a music soundtrack since 2010. Madeira, an island off Portugal, is also well known for New Year’s festivities, recognized in the Guinness World Records for having the largest fireworks show in the world. Other cities that organize large displays include Berlin, Paris, Rome, Prague and more, with many of these events televised for those around the world to enjoy.
Celebrating with music is another popular tradition, allowing countries to feel a sense of unity and national pride. In England, Scotland and Wales, the song “Auld Lang Syne” can be heard throughout the streets as friends and families stand in a circle and cross hands. In Austria, listening to the music of Johann Strauss II is an all-day affair, culminating in the broadcast of his “Donauwalzer” (“The Blue Danube Waltz”) after the chimes of midnight, and many people dance to it at parties or in the streets. The reading of a New Year’s verse is also a tradition for some countries. In Finland, the poem “Hymyilevä Apollo” (“Smiling Apollo”) by Elino Leino is recited on the radio after midnight, and in Sweden, Lord Alfred Tennyson’s “Ring Out, Wild Bells” is read.
New Year’s wouldn’t be complete without a few bizarre and unique traditions. In Russia, wishes or desires are written on pieces of paper and then burned. The ash is mixed into glasses of champagne, and at the stroke of midnight, toasters must finish their glass before 12:01 in order for their wishes to come true. In Spain and Portugal, 12 grapes or raisins are eaten with each second in the countdown to midnight (starting from 12 seconds until midnight instead of the more common 10). Traditionally, each piece of fruit is said to represent prosperity in a month of the new year, although the custom may have originated from the grape growers in Alicante in 1909 who wanted to find a way to cut down on their surplus.
Feeling lucky? European New Year's supersitions
In Italy, Spain and Turkey, red undergarments are to be worn for good luck, although it’s debated whether they should be a gift and/or thrown out afterward. The Portuguese have a similar tradition, although their lucky color is blue.
In Denmark, chipped and unwanted dishes are smashed against the front doors of friends’ homes in the evening. According to tradition, the larger the pile on your front door, the more popular you are.
In Hungary, “onion-calendars” are made by cutting onions in half, peeling off 12 layers, arranging them in order by month, and sprinkling salt on them. If the salt melts on a layer, then the corresponding month will be rainy.
In Germany, chimney sweeps are considered lucky, and it is encouraged to have one rub soot on your head. Other lucky charms include four-leaf clovers, ladybugs and marzipan pigs.
In Ireland, loaves of bread are banged on doors and walls to chase out bad luck and protect against hunger in the New Year.
In Wales, it is believed that all debts must be paid off, or you’ll be in debt the whole year. Similarly, your behavior on New Year’s Eve indicates how you’ll behave next year, such as waking early foretelling that you’ll be an early riser.