New Year’s Eve Around the World

When I’m at home in Canada, I don’t usually do a whole lot for New Year’s Eve.  It’s usually to a restaurant for dinner or have some friends over for drinks.  But when we travel over Christmas holidays, we always plan to stay until at least January 1st so we can experience New Year’s Eve the way the locals do.  I’ve been lucky enough to spend six New Year’s Eves elsewhere and they have been incredible experiences.

It’s a quiet year this year at home and I thought it would be nice to meander through my memories of previous New Year’s Eves and share them with you.

New Year's Eve Russia
Yes, I used to be a scrapbooker. These are the film photos I took of our celebration on December 31st, 1994.

Russia, 1994-95:  My first New Year’s Eve overseas was when I was 19 years old and living in St. Petersburg, Russia for six months.  It was New Year’s Eve heading into 1995, only four years after the Iron Curtain fell.  New Year’s Eve was THE celebration in Russia.  Because of Communism, people didn’t celebrate Christmas the way we did, and those that did were Orthodox and celebrated the religious aspect of it on January 7th.  So New Year’s Eve was “it” – it was Christmas and New Year’s all rolled into one, complete with massive parties, sparklers and fireworks, ëlka (New Year tree) and gift exchange. I was an exchange student and living with a Russian host family.  We had guests over that night for a dinner party.  The entire living room was made into a dining room in our tiny two-bedroom apartment.  The table filled almost the entire room.  There were 8 of us – my host family (“Mom” Svetlana,  and “brothers” Alyosha and Roma), our English teacher, our program coordinator (who was good friends with my host mother), and two other family friends who lived in Switzerland at the time.  Our daily meals were simple, hearty, one-pot stews and casseroles served in the tiny kitchen but this night, the table was decorated with candles, the best china and silver, plates of clementines and pomegranates, bowls of candy, bottles of vodka (it’s not a stereotype) and pop.  We had a meal of meat, cabbage, carrots and other dishes, fit for royalty and we laughed and joked and then had more vodka and at the end, the ubiquitous Russian tea.  We celebrated, we toasted, we lit sparklers, we shouted “C novim godom!” (Happy New Year!) out the window at other revellers.  At around 11 pm, everyone had gone on their merry ways and it was just the “family” left.  We exchanged gifts, we drank some more, we cheered in the New Year, Svetlana went to bed, and Alyosha, Roma and I watched movies until we fell asleep.

It was an incredible experience to be so young, so far away from home and to celebrate in such a meaningful way with people that had taken my young, privileged (not by North American standards but by world standards) North American self in and made me feel like a part of them.  I think it really shaped how I view New Years now – not so much about making changes but celebrating getting through one year with food, shelter and love and starting a new one with as many blessings.

Japan, 2001-02:  I had been living and teaching English in a small city called Gifu, since October, 2001.  I had known my friend Tomomi since high school, when she was an exchange student at my school in Canada.  Now, she was living and working back in her hometown of Numatsu and I invited her to Gifu to spend New Year holidays together.

When I asked her what the traditional thing to do in Japan was on New Year’s Eve, she said that traditionally, Japanese people go to temple or shrine after midnight to bring in the New Year.  I thought the experience would be amazing.  We bought some groceries and after an evening of wonderful food and wine, talking about our lives of the past few years and a quick nap (from 11:00 until 11:30), Tomomi and I headed out to Inaba Shrine, the biggest shrine in Gifu and one of my favourite stops on my way to the nearby mountain.

We left the house around 11:30 pm, to make it to the shrine by midnight.  The streets were dark and deserted. We stopped at a vending machine to get an energy drink since the cold air was not waking us up after our short but oddly-timed nap.  Where is everyone?  I wondered, peering at the darkened windows as we trudged to the shrine.  This was supposedly the biggest holiday in Japan, and we hadn’t met a single person yet.  The idea I had in my head of people at the shrine first thing in the New Year was quite simple, really.  I expected there to be only the devout worshippers, chants in the moonlight with fires burning in the stone lanterns.  A quiet and reflective affair, tossing coins in the prayer box, and saying an inward prayer for the health of your family.

Takoyaki Stand
Takoyaki stand on the street outside of Inaba Shrine, Gifu.

As we neared the shrine, we began to see more and more people, all of them dressed up, smiling and laughing as they shivered in their light coats.  There was a faint haze of light ahead and when we finally got to the main street near the shrine, at exactly midnight, the air was ringing with laughter and music and chattering and the sound of carnival games and frying octopus.  There were throngs of people, ancient obasans, small children, young women in kimonos, young men in suits, all heading to Inaba Shrine.  Food, candy and game stalls lined the street on both sides.

Thousands of people crowded the walkway up the stairs and through the shrine, all wanting to get to the front to throw money in the prayer box for wishes of prosperity and health in the New Year.  Police in bright yellow vests were standing at strategic spots along the stairs to prevent chaos from unruly sake-soaked shrine-goers (or just to make sure that nobody fell down the stairs). The bells were ringing, the lanterns were burning, the priests were chanting; it was like no Western tradition I have ever seen.  I don’t know of any Christian ceremony carried out by so many followers with such zeal and festivity.

When midnight hit, we were in a mass of shrine-goers, waiting to bring in the new year with a blessing.

At one point, there were so many people, the line was at a standstill, and what’s more, we couldn’t move back, even if we’d wanted to.  If Tomomi and I had lost each other, we’d never have found one another again.  And we couldn’t even have used our cell phones to contact each other since the lines were jammed with so many callers.  We inched closer to the front and after about half an hour in line, passing an array of kiosks selling New Year’s charms, garlands, arrows and other paraphernalia, we finally got to the front.

Well, I could see the front, over the heads of about six rows of people.  I waited for about thirty seconds to see if I could get closer to properly throw my 5 ¥ coin but I soon realized that there would be no way and that I would have to hurl my coin over the heads of the other New Year’s revellers (as many people behind me were doing) and say a quick prayer before the wave of people pushed me to the side.  The 5 ¥ piece is translated as “go en”.  Tomomi told me that it’s a homonym for having a good connection to those around you.  Luckily, I neither hit anyone nor was hit by any flying coins that evening, so I guess the New Year really did start well.

New Year's Eve, Gifu
Tomomi, outside of Inaba Shrine, close to midnight on New Year’s Eve, 2001.

Several people were kneeling in the main hall of the shrine at the time, participating in a ceremony of some kind.  Tomomi said the people who were turning a certain age this year that is considered bad luck would get blessed to start the year on a good note.  There are three ages for men and three different ages for women that are considered bad luck.  Interesting.

We slowly and carefully made our way down the stairs, past the sake kiosk, past the New Year’s souvenir stands, through the chocolate-covered banana and fried octopus stalls, out of the shrine, wandering the streets with my New Year’s arrow I bought to ward off evil spirits, and eventually, we wandered home to our nice warm futons.

It was 2 am before we got to sleep but I thought of all the other foreigners in Tokyo and all over Japan celebrating in stupid, drunken North-American style before I closed my eyes and smiled, knowing I had had the best New Year’s of all.

England, 2011-12 and 2012-13:  I have spent three New Year’s Eves in my lifetime, in London, England.  But only two I can remember.  The first one was when I was living and working there in 1997-98.  But when I tried to remember what I had done (and I even asked the friends I would’ve spent it with), nothing came to mind.  So, I obviously didn’t do anything too exciting.  But I do remember my landlord in Greenwich commenting that we had the best view of the fireworks since we were up on a hill, if I wanted to stay home.  Maybe that’s what I did.

Many years later, my partner-in-crime and I returned to England in 2011 and again in 2012, as tourists. The original plan was to go to the Embankment and see the fireworks, set up in a pub for a few drinks, mingle with the crowd, etc.  As we were wandering around the tourist sites of London earlier in the day (Westminster Abbey,  10 Downing Street, the changing of the guard, etc.), we asked locals that we encountered about what to do and where to go.

As it turns out, for security reasons, there were high metal fences put up all over the main tourist districts that were in viewing distance of the fireworks.  These areas would hold a certain number of people within several blocks and when the limit was reached, the gates would be locked.  Those inside these fences could wander the streets, sit in pubs, have drinks, socialize, wander, go to the public restrooms, etc. (each set of fences cordoned off a huge area) but you would not be able to leave to go home or to another area of the city until the gates were re-opened.  What time that happened was unclear.  Neither of us really enjoyed the idea of being “locked in” somewhere, even if it was a huge area and we opted not to stay in the main areas to watch the fireworks.  We also noticed riot gear strategically placed and lampposts with paper signs taped to them, reading “Anti-climb paint” and wondered what sort of antics were usual for Londoners on New Year’s Eve.

Instead, we decided to head to Buckingham Palace.  I had noticed earlier in our day, while we were watching the changing of the guard, that we could see more than half of the London Eye, which was near where the fireworks were loaded onto barges.  I figured we’d be able to see most of them.  Plus, we were staying in that area so it wouldn’t be too difficult to get back to the hotel after.

As it turned out, a great many people had the same idea.  The area in front of Buckingham Palace wasn’t cordoned off and it was filled with people standing around chatting with small bottles of champagne or beer and some people had already grabbed the best seats up on the walls.  We managed to find a couple of free spots on one of the walls and were hoisted up by revellers already seated up top.  The atmosphere was excited and jubilant.  There were groups of young people, families, older couples, tourists, everyone was happy and talkative and excited to be there.  The view was amazing.  And it was free – no need to spend money sitting in a pub waiting for them to start.

We did the same thing the next year and we noticed the number of people had almost doubled.  So word was getting out.  I wonder how busy it will be this year.

Sarajevo, 2015-16: Last year, we did a whirlwind two-week tour of the Balkans over the Christmas holidays, ending in Sarajevo.  We had four days there and our last night was New Year’s Eve.  During our stay there, we had done a city tour, a siege tour, we had stuffed ourselves with good food, we had wandered the Old Town, had bought souvenirs, had sat and drunk way too much coffee, not to mention their amazing wine.   We found a great little magazine called Sarajevo Navigator which listed the numerous things to be done on New Year’s Eve.  We had been invited by our Airbnb host to attend a gala at an art gallery but we would be an unnecessary burden on him as his guests so we decided to keep it simple and to go to a free, outdoor live concert at the BBI centre close to where we were staying. This venue was free and open to anyone.  We arrived at 11:30 pm, bought some hot wine from the stalls that lined the street, found a spot on the street that wasn’t too crowded to listen to the band, and to celebrate with all the others who were out to enjoy themselves.

New Year's Eve
New Year’s Eve in Sarajevo, 2015.

The fireworks went off at midnight overtop of the shopping centre.  There were also smaller fireworks going off around us as well.  The local young people were obviously not very concerned about lighting anyone on fire.  The police were out, as they are everywhere in the world, but the streets held no concern for us.  People were out enjoying the music, the wine, each other’s company and just being alive.  There’s something about Sarajevo, this really chill, hip vibe and we could feel it this night.

Next year, we hope to travel again over the Christmas holidays and experience yet another country’s traditions and celebrations.  What are your favourite New Year’s Eve traditions that you’ve experienced in another place?

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