New Year Customs from Around the World

Every year, people around the world mark the passage of time with New Year’s celebrations.  December 31 and January 1 find many more people than usual (even kids!) staying up well past their bedtimes. Learn more about this annual celebration here!

Around the world

Different cultures have different ways of celebrating the transition from the old year to the new.  It’s worth noting that some cultures which use a different calendar in addition to the Western civil one (also called the Gregorian calendar), may still mark the transition from one year to the next on January 1, but the cultural celebrations happen as the new year begins on their traditional calendar (for example, Chinese New Year and Islamic New Year).

What the heck is Hogmanay?

Hogmanay is what the New Year celebration is called in Scotland.  The word’s exact origin is unknown, but it may have come from the French word hoginane meaning “gala day”.  The name might also have come from the Anglo-Saxon haleg monath meaning “holy month”.  Some claim it came from the Scandinavian hoggo-nott meaning “yule”.  A traditional part of Hogmanay is “first footing”.  That’s when someone visits friends or family immediately after midnight to become the first person to go into their house in the new year.  First footers traditionally bring a lump of coal to ensure the house remains warm in the coming months.

No sour grapes allowed, but lentils are okay

When the clock strikes midnight in Spain, people reach for grapes.  Tradition has it that you should eat one grape each time the clock chimes.  In Romania, people dress up as dancing bears at the New Year to chase away evil spirits.  In Brazil, eating a bowlful of lentils at New Year is a guarantee of good fortune for the year ahead.

Ring the bells

At midnight on December 31, Buddhist temples and individuals all over Japan ring bells 108 times to symbolize the 108 human sins in Buddhist belief, and to get rid of the 108 worldly desires regarding sense and feeling in every Japanese citizen.  In Seoul, South Korea, the large bell in the Bosingak pavilion (originally constructed in 1396!) is rung just once a year at midnight on December 31.

Smashing stuff

In Denmark, people smash a plate on a friend’s doorstep to bring good luck over the next twelve months.  No one knows the origin of this strange tradition.  In Johannesburg, people like to begin the year without any unwanted items, so at the new year they chuck out old furniture by dropping it out of a window.

Speaking of dropping things…

In Times Square in New York City, the countdown to midnight finishes with a giant ball drop, when a glowing ball is lowered down a big flagpole to the cheers of a million people crammed into the streets below.  The ball is twelve feet in diameter, and weighs nearly 12,000 pounds.  It’s covered with more than 2,600 Waterford Crystal triangles.  The ball has been lowered every year since 1907, except for 1942 and 1943, when the ceremony was cancelled due to World War Two.   There are many ways to watch the ball drop live

Who is first (and last) to celebrate?

The Republic of Kiribati is the first nation to ring in the new year.  This Pacific atoll nation straddles the 180th meridian.  Even though its easternmost islands lie west of the Hawaiian Islands, an odd eastward thrust of the International Date Line gives Kiribati this privilege.  Kiribati is the only nation on earth which is situated in all four hemispheres.

The uninhabited Baker Island and nearby Howland Island, both U.S. possessions in the Pacific, are the last to say goodbye to the old year.  American Samoa is the last inhabited place on the globe to welcome the new year.


Although restrictions on large crowds due to the pandemic may limit fireworks displays, many are still planned and can be enjoyed from afar.  Sadly, the most famous fireworks display, held annually in Sydney, Australia will be toned down for New Year’s Eve 2020 due to pandemic restrictions.  In a normal year, the Sydney celebration would attract more than a million spectators to the city’s harbor, and one billion viewers on television and internet streaming.  Due to its time zone, Sydney is one of the first major cities in the world to enter the new year. 

Most major cities have fireworks displays each year including Dubai, Singapore, Niagara Falls, Berlin, and Rio de Janeiro, where fireworks are launched at the city’s famous Copacabana beach.  Again, fireworks displays in many of the world’s great cities this year have been cancelled or curtailed due to the pandemic, but some will be streamed online.

Virtual celebrations

Kids can zoom into the New Year with the many virtual “Noon” Year’s Eve celebrations offered by children’s museums and other non-profit groups.  Here are a few:

How can I celebrate New Year in my classroom?

Since most schools are closed for the winter holidays during the week between Christmas and New Year, it is difficult to celebrate the new year in your classroom on January 1.  However, you can celebrate the new year as schools reopen a day or two later.

Turning over a new leaf

For all students, the new year affords an opportunity to start over.  This can be particularly helpful for those students who have had a rough time academically and behaviorally in the autumn term.  Giving them a chance to reset, form new goals, and develop a new attitude about learning may be just what they need to succeed in the New Year.

Roses, thorns and buds from 2020: This prompt helps kids reflect on the past and move forward to what’s ahead.  Have each student share a highlight of 2020 (rose), a challenging or sad moment (thorn), and one thing they’re looking forward to (bud) in 2021.  This can be done in group discussion or as a written assignment.  Connecticut Children’s Medical Center has more great ideas.


Start a Journal: The new year is a great time for students of all ages to start writing a daily or weekly journal.  Create a Journal Center for students who are just beginning to write (K through 2).  In the center, place copies of a blank frame for drawing and a template for writing a journal entry that will be kept in a student’s folder.  The date and a prompt is posted in the center.  Beginning writers go to the center, copy the date, read the prompt, draw a picture, write, or dictate to an aide, a classroom volunteer, or an older student assistant from another grade.  Students may choose to share journal entries during time for sharing with the class.

Older elementary students will enjoy hearing Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin read out loud. This daily journal of a personified worm, reveals some of the good news and bad news about being a worm.  The book models journal writing with humor.  After reading, lead a discussion about the book asing questions such as: What do you think of the things the worm wrote about in his diary? What would you write about in your diary?

Check out Reading Rockets for more tips on journaling.

Making Predictions

Kids have great imaginations, so engage them with an opportunity to think about what the new year will be like in the area of science and technology.  What new inventions might be created?  What discoveries might be made?  What improvements to our lives might be coming?  You might want to start with a class discussion of some of the advances which are on the horizon in the areas of space exploration, undersea research, computers, and transportation.  Popular media such as Forbes, Interesting Engineering, and National Geographic usually offer summaries of trends in many areas this time of year.

New Year’s activities for elementary children

KidsKonnect has a thick bundle of New Year worksheets and activities available for download.  This packet includes:

  • New Year Facts
  • New Year’s Info by Numbers
  • Unique Traditions
  • Mapping New Year
  • New Year Ball Drop
  • Ancient Celebrations
  • Symbols and Meanings
  • New Year Around the World
  • My Resolution

From all of us at Help Teaching, best wishes for a healthy and prosperous New Year!

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