A Glimpse Into New Year’s Traditions Around The World

Having lived and worked in six different countries in the past ten years, I have come to appreciate what binds us together as one human race. One such example is the idea of a New Year. Now, while the idea of having a fresh year annually is universal, the ‘when’ differs. Officially we welcome a new year on the first of January every calendar year. However, when you trace back a cultural identity to its roots, new beginnings are marked by seasons. Here are a few global New Year festivals.

A glimpse at one of the Shankranti traditions: Creating elaborate Rangoli decorations at the entrance of the house.

Shankranti (January 14)

The parties are officially hosted on New Year’s Eve with many people staying awake through the night to usher in the next year. However, before a global calendar was followed, the official start of the year was Shankranti, Maghi, Mag Bihu or Pongal. It is a festival that marks the first day of the Sun’s journey out of the winter solstice.

Mooncakes can taste divine or they can taste a bit dodgy, depending on the filling you prefer. I prefer the sweeter ones with Pandan or custard fillings. But whatever your individual taste, they are works of art!

Chinese New Year (February 8)

Celebrated by Chinese people and people of Chinese origin globally in February, this festival marks the beginning of the spring harvest season. It is often celebrated by sharing moon cakes and gifting red envelopes with money. You know it’s coming up to the New Year when you see colourful dragons and stunning lanterns on display. 

Nyepi (March 9)

This is the Balinese New Year and marks the first day of the Saka lunar-based Calendar. Instead of a fireworks and fanfare, the Balinese welcome the New Year with some mindfulness and rest. Most spend their day in silence, reflecting on the year gone by and making plans for the next year. Everything on the island is closed save for emergency services.

Nowruz (March 20)

While this festival is the mark of Spring, Nowrus is celebrated as the start of the New Year, when winter is over and life begins anew in nature. Zoroastrian and Baha’I communities celebrate their new year by cleaning out their houses and their lives, leaving space for new beginnings and resolutions.

Aluth Avurudda (April 14)

This Sinhalese festival, unlike other traditional New Year festivities, marks the end of the harvest season. Coinciding with Tamil New Year and Kerala New Year (Vishu), the New Year is celebrated with freshly harvested food, sweet treats, new clothes and spending quality time with family.

Rosh Hashanah (October 2)

The traditional Jewish New Year is a two-day holiday that commemorates the end of the seven days of creation as mentioned in the Book of Genesis in the Bible. The celebration is a subtle melange between festive cheer and quiet contemplation. 

Raʼs as-Sanah al-Hijrīyah (October 3)

Marking the first day of Muharram, the first month of the Muslim Calendar, the Islamic New Year is a celebration of the emigration (called Hijra) of Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina. The New Year is ushered in by the first sighting of the moon.

Murador New Year (October 30)

Murador is a Western Australian Aborignal tribe that celebrates New Year’s Day every year on October the 30th. The day is earmarked as a time for friendship, for being grateful for the year just gone by and for making amends with family and friends you have fallen out with. While the Murador people are now extinct, many Australians mark this day in their own way.

Edge of Desire

Amma told us at dinner that Agnes Aunty had started baking cake again. We didn’t have calendars in the house, just an old time piece on the shelf behind God’s photos and all our old hand-me-down text books. Agnes Aunty was our season clock. We knew it was summer when mother would bring home nimboo paani, we knew it was the start of a new year at school when we got her son’s too big uniforms. We wouldn’t complain – they were the only ‘new’ clothes we’d get all year and we wore it with pride. Who doesn’t want to look like a Saahib?

But the best season of all was when Maalkin would start baking cake. Every year we would hear of her meticulous preparation. She’d buy the raisins and currants in bulk and lay them out in the sun to dry. She’d then put them in a giant ceramic jar and pour in a bottle of daaru (something with the name that sounds like our god, Ram) and some cinnamon. These were luxuries we were excited about even if we never got to see it.

When Agnes Aunty was done soaking the raisins for 2 days, she’d start her painstaking work of art. The way Amma described it, it was like Agnes Aunty was an artist, a sculptor who slowly, painstakingly worked on every aspect of the cake till it looked like a winter wonderland. I don’t know what a wonderland is but I have seen posters of these firangis in their Santa hats and so much snow – I assume that’s what it means. Winter snowland. We never have snow in our shanties. In fact, when Amma was telling us the story, we were sitting shirtless, wiping off the sweat from our brows every two minutes.

I looked at my plate and smiled, the season of magic was upon us. Our cold gruel now had vegetables in them. Yesterday we had biryani. Agnes Aunty is always very generous this time of year. Amma says that maalkin is only cleaning the fridge and wants to get rid of the filth but I am thankful. My ever grumbling stomach is thrilled during this season and full. It’s such a good and underrated feeling.

Every year during Christmas we also get Rs.1 a day. It usually buys you 4 chocolates in the Kaaka shop. Sometimes if we help him take out the garbage, he gives us a chocolate free. Candy, the maalkin’s son calls it. Chocolate, apparently, isn’t as sweet and fruity flavoured. I stuck to ‘chocolate’ though. Ganesh and gang would tease me terribly if I used any other term.

My worn out purse had Rs. 10 now and I drifted off into fantasies once mother started complaining about her workload. I feel for her – to take care of us, she worked in 3 houses and cooked in 2. But it was the same story we heard every day for a year and so I thought it would be okay to dream for a day. She wouldn’t even notice, I told myself.

Agnes Aunty would assemble her cake, she made so many, and she would give it to her sons to go sell it to the bakeries. It was amazing to me how much money she made from Rs. 80 daaru and raisins. Every family wanted to some for themselves and then some more to gift to their friends and family. No one I knew practiced tradition but every year we got to secretly be part of it. The bakeries would take the cakes and cut off the edges and decorate the cake anew with an old man in a red suit, sometimes a tree and sometimes something that looked like snow and silver balls.

Rich-Plum-Cake

Now, I didn’t care about what the cake looked like. No one I knew did. We cared about the edges of the cake that were cut off. Some were burnt, some were apparently too dry, as if there was such a thing. Every year I thank god for our smriti because none of us like to waste anything. Not even the rich bakery bhaiyas. In fact, they cut the edges into nice square chunks and would wrap it up in plastic and sell it to smaller bakeries closer to our homes. Rs. 10 for a big pack of melt in your mouth, sweet and rich cake edges. And just after Amma leaves for work tomorrow, I know where I would go.

“Wipe your mouth, you’re drooling like a dog again” said Amma. I didn’t even lose my temper this time.

It was, finally, Christmas.

_______________________

Based on a colleague’s personal experience