Celebrating New Years: When January 1st isn’t New Year’s Day
Globally, people celebrate the coming of a new year with many traditions, customs and activities. However, not all cultures celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1st.
In Japan, every February 3 or 4, based on the lunar calendar, Setsubun is celebrated. Although not a national holiday, Setsubun (“sectional/seasonal division”) has marked the last day of winter since the 13th century and is one day prior to the beginning of Spring, signifying a new year with the return of the warming sun, symbolic rebirth, rejuvenation of spirit and body, and preparing for the planting season. Setsubun traditions have been celebrated in many ways; the most common, however, is throwing beans – Mame Maki – to drive away evil spirits – oni. The Toshi Otoko/Onna – year man/woman – throws mame – beans – inside their home (or, perhaps, at someone dressed as an oni), while shouting, “Oniwa sato, fukuwa uchi!” – “Devils out, good luck/happiness in!” After the beans are thrown, family members pick up and eat the same number of beans as their age, bringing good health, luck and fortune for the new year.
Vietnamese New Year – Tet Nguyen-Dan; Tet – is also based on the lunar calendar and most often occurs in late January or early/mid February. Tet Nguyen-Dan, literally translated, is “the first morning of the first day of the new period.” Believing that the first day and the first week of the new year determines your fortune (or misfortune); weeks of preparations are made including thoroughly cleaning your home (perhaps, even repainting it), buying new clothes, and settling debts and past arguments. Tet is the most important holiday within the Vietnamese culture, with New Year’s traditions lasting at least three days, beginning with New Year’s Eve – Giao Thua, to give/to receive – acting as the transition between the old and the new. Families gather to wait until midnight, praying together and then congratulating each other, beginning with the eldest members of the family. Traditionally, huge strings of fireworks, attached to houses, shattered midnight, scaring away evil spirits. Now illegal in many countries, community fireworks replace individual displays. Banging pots, ringing bells and making noise in all sorts of manner also adds to the clatter. Family alters are perfumed with incense sticks and offerings of fresh flowers, food and water are made. With the morning of Mong Mot Tet – New Year’s Day – new clothes continue to signify new beginnings, as greeting of “Chuc mung nam moi!” – “Congratulations for the New Year!” – are exchanged between family members, friends and business associates.
The 15-day Chinese New Year is celebrated on the second new moon (lunar) after the Winter Solstice (solar) – occurring between January 20-February 20 – culminating with the Lantern Festival. Preparing begins weeks ahead – buying presents, decorations, food and new clothes. Houses are cleaned to sweep away bad luck; and, old debts are settled before the last day of the old year. New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day celebrations are primarily family affairs, with members gathering for their meal on New Year’s Eve. Traditionally, if a family member couldn’t attend this meal, a place was set for them, representing their presence. At midnight, younger family members pay their respect to elders and parents. New Year’s Day, children are given “Red Envelopes” – Lai See – red envelopes with good luck money by their parents. Each day – from the 2nd to the 14th – traditional observations are made – such as married daughters visiting their parents, eating specific foods and offering particular prayers. The Lion Dance is particularly common during Chinese New Year, as tradition believes that the loud drums and cymbals, combined with the fierce image of the Lion/dragon evicts evil spirits. On the last day of the Chinese New Year’s celebration, lanterns are lit and carried to show spirits the way home.
On the first day of spring, marked by the Vernal Equinox, the two-week celebration of the Persian/Iranian New Year – Nowruz, NoRuz, NoRooz, Noruz – “new day” – begins. Occurring between March 20 to 22, Nowruz activities include symbolic gestures, such as – cleaning your home, confessing wrong-doings, making peace with yourself and your enemies; and, enjoying parties with ceremonial foods. Representing the end of one year and the rebirth of a new year, making or buying new clothes and germinating seeds are signs of renewal. Within Persian homes a special cloth is spread on which to make the sofreh-ye haft-sinn – seven dishes – setting. The number seven is sacred within the Iranian culture and the dishes represent the seven heralds of beauty, happiness, health, joy, life, patience and prosperity. Included on the sofreh there are traditional books- for wisdom, coins – for wealth, painted eggs – for fertility, an orange floating in a bowl of water – representing the earth; and a goldfish in its own bowl – representing life. Branches of olive, fig and pomegranate symbolize time. A mirror, surrounded by a candle for each child in that family – signifying happiness and enlightenment, reflects the Creation that’s celebrated on the first day of Spring – Nowruz. On the night of the last Wednesday of Nowruz, bonfires are set and people jump over the fires, shouting, “Give me your red color and take back my pallor!” Jumping through the fire – symbolizing good – the celebrants pass through the end of the year into Spring.
A calculation, based on astrological signs, determines the New Year – Aluth Avurudhu – in mid-April for Sri Lankans. Unique to these celebrations, when the old year ends and the new year begins is, also, astrologically determined – occurring several hours apart. This “in between time” is, appropriately, called nona gathe – neutral period – when refraining from material pursuits is encouraged and participating religious traditions is customary. Rituals include house cleaning, lighting of the hearth, making milk rice – kiri bath, and herbal bathing on the last day of the passing year. Strengthening family relationships – between parents and children – and respecting elders is a foundation of New Year customs. Exchanging gifts of betel and sweets and greetings between families and neighbors shows gratitude for the old year and re-confirms the desire for continued prosperity and peace in the new year.
April 13th or 14th marks the beginning of the solar New Year in Indian and is regionally celebrated in Punjab (Sikh) – Baisakhi; Assam – Rongali Bihu; Bengal – Naba Barsha; Tamil Nadu – Puthandu; Keral – Vishu; and, Bihar – Vaishakha. Ritual baths and visiting temples to give thanks for a good harvest and to prayer for future prosperity are similarly celebrated within each region. Following the customary prayers, traditional dancing is performed by men and women, who are elaborately dressed. Processions, mock duels and fairs are, also, shared customs. However, each region has its special interpretations of their shared celebrations. For example, Tamil New Year’s Day is celebrated at the start of the first month of the Tamil calendar year – Chithirai. It is, also, celebrated as the day when the Hindu God of Creation, Lord Brahma, started creation. Auspicious sightings – kanni – is important because to begin a New Year by seeing such things as silver and gold, flowers, fruits, vegetables and rice will ensure happiness and prosperity for the coming year. All regions share wearing new clothes, the preparations particular feast foods and long and joyous gatherings to bid farewell to the old and welcome the new.
In the southern hemisphere, late May to early June is mid-winter. The Maori New Year, Matariki – the Maori name for the star cluster Pleiades – celebrates this as a time of remembrance for those who have died and, since the harvest is done and food has been collected, it is, also, a time for celebration. Rising only once during the year, Matariki – literally “eyes of god” – is a period of feasting and new beginnings. Traditionally, kites – pakau – were flown, because they were closer to the stars. How bright or hazy the stars are, also, foretold if a warmer or colder planting season; and, therefore, a better harvest yield.