"Youth is when you're allowed to stay up late on New Year's Eve,” wrote columnist Bill Vaughan. “Middle age is when you're forced to!" It’s easy to get blasé about ringing in yet another January. By now we’ve all learned that few, if any, New Year’s celebrations live up to our Hollywood-fed expectations for a glamorous, romantic, life-changing night with sentimental music and great clothes.
But New Year’s doesn’t have to be underwhelming, especially if you are fortunate enough to be on the road. Other cultures enliven the evening with their own brand of lunacy and excess, which can be very entertaining when you have a front-row seat for the show.
Research your destination in advance. For instance, if you’re heading to Havana, it pays to know that partying Cubans take a break at midnight get rid of the old year’s bad juju by flinging a bucket of water out the window. Look sharp, pedestrians! I’d say avoid the streets altogether, but another popular custom there is to walk around the block with a suitcase, waving to neighbors, to boost your chances of traveling in the coming year. Of course, if you’re a visitor, you’ve pretty much got that one sewed up already.
Splurge on a party organized by a bar, restaurant, hotel, or night club. Go online (well in advance, if possible) to seek out a convivial venue where you’ll be served traditional fare and invited to join in whatever midnight customs are honored in that corner of the world. You may not get to throw a bucket of water out the window, but if you’re in, say, Mexico, you might be served a round loaf of sweet bread with a coin or charm baked in it; getting the charmed slice ensures a year of good fortune. Mexicans cultivate more good luck by decorating with red for enhancing love and lifestyle, green for financial success, and white for health. Negative aspects of the old year are written down and tossed into the fire so you’ll be free of them in the future.
Find a TV. If your mood and/or budget don’t extend to organized festivities, simply planting yourself in front of a TV or streaming a local broadcast on your tablet will put you on an equal footing with the majority of home-based merrymakers in your vicinity. I love the Albanian tradition of watching comedy shows in the run-up to midnight; they believe you should always enter a new year laughing and full of joy. Russians, on the other hand, strike a sober note. At 11:55 all televisions broadcast a pre-recorded message from the Russian president listing the government’s achievements during the year, followed by 12 seconds of silence so everyone can make resolutions — presumably vowing to do more for the State in the year ahead. Talk about a buzzkill!
Head to the main plaza. Just about everywhere, people gather in public spaces to indulge in rowdiness, alcoholic beverages, and small, noisy explosions; you’ll often find parades, concerts, and costumed revelers adding to the commotion. In Prague, firecrackers start and noon and build to a crescendo of cacophony by midnight, at which point they are joined by fireworks you can watch from Lesser Town Square or the Charles Bridge.
Resist the impulse to make resolutions. Actually, make all you want, because chances are you won’t be keeping them anyway. Success rates in the US are just 30% if you’re in your twenties and drops to a dismal 14% if you’re over 50. There are exceptions, notably cognitive scientist Stephen Duneier. In 2012, he committed to 12 Learning Resolutions and 12 Giving Resolutions. He performed at comedy clubs, flew a helicopter, built homes for families in need, climbed icebound waterfalls, had a root canal without anesthetic, learned German, read 50 books, ran a half marathon, fostered a pit bull, took up drumming, unicycling, hiking on stilts, ballroom dancing, skydiving, aerial acrobatics… I could go on, but aren’t we all intimidated enough?
Get lucky. Here in Spain, everybody knows that if you wear red underwear and consume 12 grapes as midnight strikes on December 31, you’ve done everything necessary to ensure good fortune for the year ahead. Yes, it’s that simple! If you really want to hedge your bets, you can also throw a bucket of water out the window, burn a list of bad juju from the past, and watch comedy shows. And to ensure yet more luck, don’t make any resolutions to climb icy waterfalls, hike on stilts, or have a root canal without anesthetic. I think we can all agree that any 12 months that does NOT include those things is well on its way to being a very happy and successful year.
Have you encountered any zany, wonderful, or curious customs for celebrating New Year’s? I’d love to hear about them!
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and currently visiting my home state of California.
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