New Year’s Day

2-an-unknown-family-group-with-food-and-hampers-spread-out-picnice-style-before-them-c1890sHow did you celebrate New Years? For many, It is the eve of the New Year that is the focus, by ‘seeing the new year in’ with drinking and partying.

When I was a child we would have a low key New Years – with me doing the first footing. That meant standing outside with a lump of coal and a piece of cake waiting to cross the threshold at midnight – bringing luck and plenty to our home for the following year. Then, on New Year’s Day my Grandmother would prepare a feast (even though we had only really finished the leftovers from Christmas).

While Christmas is a religious festival celebrated largely only by Christians, every culture celebrates a New Years – even though the date may not always be the same.

It is fitting that the first month of the year (at least in the Georgian calendar) is January – named after the Roman God Janus who has two heads – one facing the past and the other the future. New Year’s is a period where we take stock of the year we are leaving and look forward, with hope, to the next.

People either focus on looking back and reflecting on the year that has been or look forward and visualise what type of year the new one will be.


New year, new start

The partying that some people have with food and lots of alcohol is really a new take on a traditional feast to wish each other happiness, friendship and plenty to eat. While here in New Zealand a wish of plenty is rather easy to achieve, for our ancestors and for some less fortunate today, a wish to have your larders full was a wish for continued life, without illness, misfortune and famine. It is interesting that Northern hemisphere celebrations, taking place in the dead of winter, focus on food and warmth, whereas other countries and cultures focus on such things as luck and happiness.

For some cultures, New Years is a solemn event. Followers of Islam for example spend time praying to prepare themselves for the New Year and giving thanks for the good things of the last year. In Ecuador people burn images of things that have been unpleasant for them in the past year in order to banish them from the forthcoming year.

Japanese people may spend the time repaying debts, both financially and otherwise. Some cultures, such as people from Sri Lanka, perform rather intensive house cleaning and have a special lighting of the hearth.

New year, new food

Food plays an important part in many cultures – symbolising prosperity. In our family any food would do, although pork was favoured. I assume as in those days it was expensive, or perhaps my Grandmother just really liked it. However, other cultures specify the most lucky or auspices food to consume. Brazil sees lentils as good luck and consumes the legume in cakes, soup and any way possible; whereas the Baha’i community sprout lentils and on their New Year’s throw them in running water to remove any bad luck.

Spanish people supposedly eat a grape at each striking of the clock at midnight. Greeks have a cake which includes a coin (like our Christmas pudding) for luck, but before guests can eat it, a piece is cut for each God, the house and the head of the house. If any of these pieces contain the coin then it will be an even luckier year. Austrians, like my family, must have a suckling pig to see them into the next year.

New year, new ways

Other cultures think actions speak louder than food products and do things to increase their chance of good luck. Chinese use fireworks and dragons to frighten away bad luck and hide knives during the evening to ensure good luck isn’t cut (and so allow bad luck to reign).

Bengalis and Turks believe how one celebrates the New Year will give an indication of how the following 365 days will be. Turkish people in particular give service to their community or perform other good acts to ensure prosperity, for themselves as well as others. Many people ‘visualise’ their new year in the form of resolutions.

All these customs make good sense, but some just seem to me, as an outsider, rather weird, but of course to many, carrying coal in the middle of the night is also odd!

In Denmark people jump from chairs as the clock strikes midnight, they also throw dishes at their friend’s doors to make sure their friends are surrounded by good luck and more friends. Filipinos believe round is lucky so not only do they make an effort to eat round foods, many wear polka dots.

Clothing is used in some rather novel ways – for example in Bolivia they change their underpants for good luck and in Mexico they wear yellow underpants for good luck and red for love.

New Years picnics

In the past, many kiwi’s went on a picnic, as often New Years Day was the only holiday people had, over the long months of summer when harvesting was the top priority. Lavish arrangements were made, where entire extended families ate and played games together. Harkening back to the Scottish Hogmanay, many Caledonian Societies held sports over this period. Other picnics were hosted by workplaces. There was a well-established circuit in which athletes and performers would travel to compete while the holidaying locals looked on.

However you celebrated New Year’s, I hope it was enjoyable and that you have made visiting Ashburton Museum one of your resolutions for 2017. We currently have an exhibition showcasing the many cultures that call Ashburton District home. Called New Face, New Lives, it’s a portrait wall of locals and newcomers to our special district. We hope to see you there!

By Kathleen Stringer


  1. A school picnic at Westerfield Lake, including Len Watson with motorboat. ©Ashburton Museum.
  2. An unknown family group with food and hampers spread out picnic-style before them. C.1890s. ©Ashburton Museum.
  3. A group of unidentified picknickers well protected from the sun under trees and wide brimmed hats. c.1890s. ©Ashburton Museum.

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