New Year's Eve is often fraught with expectations and the pressure to make big plans and have a memorable time. But ball drops and drunken renditions of "Auld Lang Syne" don't always cut it. And that's when you should head to Europe, where celebrating New Year is more like a choose-your-own-adventure book, with speed-eating grapes in Spain, pouring lead in Finland, and, my personal favorite, shattering dishes on doorsteps to show loyalty to friends in Denmark. Here are some of the most interesting New Year traditions from across the pond.
Eating 12 spoons of lentils, and other lucky foods
The French usher in the New Year with a stack of pancakes. Germans prefer marzipan shaped into a pig for luck, whereas in the Netherlands, people are careful to eat donuts and ring-shaped foods. Estonians feast as many as seven, nine, or even twelve times on New Year’s Eve, as they believe for each meal consumed, the person gains the strength of that many men the following year.
Greek hostesses go the extra mile and serve up a plate of their best jewelry to encourage prosperity in the coming year. It’s also tradition in Greece to smash pomegranates—the more of the juicy seeds that spill out, the more luck the new year will bring.
The Swiss drop a dollop of cream on the floor for luck, wealth, and peace. In Ireland, you beat the outside walls with bread so that those in the home will have enough bread to eat the next year, and to keep away bad luck and spirits.
Seeking the man with many noses and the weather in onion skins
It's natural that people want to remember the year past and make wishes and predictions for the year to come. In parts of Germany, as well as Austria and Finland, people heat small pieces of lead on the stove and cast them in cold water, analyzing the shapes as they form for a glimpse into the future.
Russians say dasvidania to the past year by remembering its most important events during the hours leading up to midnight, and use twelve seconds of silence before the stroke of midnight to make wishes. Children in Belgium write letters to read aloud on New Year’s Day, promising improved behavior and wishing their families good will.
In Catalonia, Northern Spain, a special character appears on the last day of the year. L’homme dels nassos, or the man with many noses, has as many noses as there are days left in the year—and grants wishes, if you can find him. Children are encouraged to look for him, rarely realizing that on the last day of the year, he’s only got one nose and is, therefore, rather hard to spot.
Romanian peasants divine the following year’s weather in the skins of twelve onions that they systematically peel, salt, and examine. In Armenia, people burn their troubles from the past year in a ritual fire. In Stonehaven, Scotland, during a midnight procession daring locals swing flaming wire cages around their heads to burn off any lingering bad feelings and spirits from the last twelve months and to make way for good things in the coming year.
Spending time with friends, whether alive, dead, or furry
Danes crack plates on doorsteps to wish the people they care about prosperity in the new year—so the family with the biggest pile of broken glass is rich in loyal friends. Some Irish still leave doors open to welcome in their friends, whether alive or passed on. Whereas in Russia, it's a male friend people hope to welcome as their first visitor of the year, since it’s considered good luck.
For Hogmanay, in Scotland, first-footing is the practice of loved ones visiting each other’s homes with gifts—traditionally with whisky and a lump of coal in hand. In Wales, on the other hand, custom dictates taking loved ones cheese and bread.
Wearing red underwear for luck, or tossing it out the window
Italians and Spaniards both wear red undies for luck, but Spaniards insist the underwear must also be new to be lucky. Italians take the new concept a step further, traditionally throwing old items out the window to symbolize the coming of new things with the New Year.
In Germany, touching a chimney sweep or letting him smudge your face with ash is lucky, whereas Poles smudge windows and doorknobs with sticky tar to drive out the old and welcome in the new.
In Ireland it’s a custom to bring in the New Year with a spotless house, symbolizing a fresh start. You aren't to bring anything into or out of the house, because you might be bringing in bad luck or giving away the good.
So wherever you are when the clock strikes twelve, take a moment to celebrate the year past and the year to come—in whatever way you see fit.