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Why our superstitious New Year’s Eve traditions are so important

champagne tray
Reuters/Benoit Tessier
On New Year’s Eve, we act as if our fortunes are just about to take a turn for the better.
  • Sarah Todd
By Sarah Todd

Senior reporter, Quartz and Quartz at Work


2020 was not a good year. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee the next one will be better. Even as the introduction of new coronavirus vaccines offers hope for the future, the pandemic will continue to take a toll on the health and livelihoods of the world’s citizens for some time to come.

Nevertheless, as the end of the Gregorian calendar year approaches, it’s only natural to want to kick 2020 to the curb and start fresh in 2021. This rather unfounded optimism for the future is an important part of tradition when it comes to the turning of the calendar year.

We make resolutions that we stand little chance of keeping, jotting down goals that life’s circumstances will promptly render obsolete. In Japan, Buddhist temples ring the bell 108 times on New Year’s Eve, representing the cleansing of 108 human desires that cause suffering.

In years in which there is not a global pandemic necessitating that we all stay home, we don our sparkliest fashions and pack ourselves into crowded parties to celebrate the occasion, ignoring the fact that all previous experience suggests the champagne will be lukewarm and the evening disappointing.

In short, we never learn! A look at the history of New Year’s Eve suggests that we will always be eager to bid the struggles and sadness of the past year good riddance, and ready to spend at least one night acting as if our fortunes are just about to take a turn for the better. The way we approach the new year isn’t rational at all. That’s kind of a beautiful thing.

Time is an illusion, and so is the new year

Even in normal times, New Year’s Eve can feel stressful—it reminds us of the passage of time and the indisputable fact that we’re all getting older. No doubt all of this argues for making plans that will keep you in a state of utter denial. The stoics, though, can take comfort in philosophy and physics.

As Sean M. Carroll writes for Smithsonian Magazine, thinkers from the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides to Albert Einstein and contemporary British scientist Julian Barbour have argued that time is a construct, and that what we perceive as the past, present, and future all coexist. Carroll explains:

“At issue is whether each subsequent moment is brought into existence from the previous moment by the passage of time. Think of a movie, back in the days when most movies were projected from actual reels of film. You could watch the movie, see what happened and talk sensibly about how long the whole thing lasted. But you could also sneak into the projection room, assemble the reels of the film, and look at them all at once. The anti-time perspective says that the best way to think about the universe is, similarly, as a collection of the frames.”

Comforting, no? If there is no such thing as the passage of time, then there is no need to worry about what the next year will bring. Or, in the age of Covid-19, when during the next year we will finally be able to see our friends and family in person again.

Philosophy also provides the perfect excuse to tell your family that you’ll be going to bed early: Since time is an illusion, there’s no need to stay up until midnight.

New Year’s traditions around the world, suitable for a pandemic

Big nights out aren’t an option during a global pandemic—but here are some festive practices from around the world that you might be able to celebrate at home.

🇲🇽 Mexico: Wear red underwear if you want to find love in the new year, yellow if you hope for wealth. Why not both?

🇩🇰 Denmark: Send friends well-wishes for the new year by smashing plates and leaving the pieces on their doorsteps.

🇪🇨 Ecuador: In a tradition said to have begun during an 1895 epidemic of yellow fever, people create and burn effigies to banish the unhappy elements of the previous year.

🇯🇵 Japan: Eating soba noodles, a tradition dating back to the Edo period, is considered good luck and is confirmed delicious.

🇿🇦 South Africa: Since the 1990s, Johannesburg revelers have been tossing old furniture out their windows—though police have cracked down on the practice in recent years.

🇪🇸 Spain: It’s tradition to eat 12 grapes for good luck at the stroke of midnight, one grape for each month of the new year

🇩🇪 Germany: The tradition of Bleigiessen involves casting lead in cold water and then interpreting the shapes the metal forms as signs of the future. You’ll just need some molten… actually maybe don’t try this one at home.

And no matter where in the world you are, clinking a glass of champagne with your loved ones is another New Year’s tradition that’s perfectly suited for the lockdown era. The producers in France’s Champagne region will thank you—and in your own home, you can always make sure the champagne is served chilled.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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