As the clock strikes 12 today, millions will pop champagne corks and light fireworks, while others indulge in quirkier New Year’s rituals like melting lead, leaping off chairs or gobbling grapes.
One of the world’s oldest shared traditions, New Year’s celebrations take many forms, but most cultures have one thing in common: letting one’s hair down after a long, hard year.
For much of the globe this involves sipping bubbly with friends until the sun comes up, seeing out the old year with bonfires, flares and off-key renditions of Auld Lang Syne.
However, others have rather more curious habits, often steeped in superstition.
In Finland, people pour molten lead into cold water to divine the year ahead from the shape the metal sets in. If the blob represents a ship it is said to foretell travel, if it is a ball, it means good luck.
In Denmark, people stand on chairs and jump off in unison as the clock strikes midnight, literally leaping into the new year.
The Danes also throw plates at their friends’ homes during the night — the more shards you find outside your door in the morning the more popular you are said to be.
The Dutch build massive bonfires with their Christmas trees and eat sugary donuts — one of many cultures to consume round New Year’s foods traditionally believed to represent good fortune.
Meanwhile, Spaniards gobble a dozen grapes before the stroke of midnight, each fruit representing a month that will either be sweet or sour.
In the Philippines, revelers wear polka dots for good luck, while in some countries of South America people don brightly colored underwear to attract fortune — red for love and yellow for financial success.
Despite regional and cultural differences, for most the New Year’s festivities are a chance to let off steam before the annual cycle starts all over again.
“The whole year people are chained by social requirements, morals, laws … And then there comes some occasion in which society says for today, 24 hours, for this evening, all bets are off, all norms are suspended and it’s OK,” George Washington University sociologist Amitai Etzioni said. “The next day, we have to get back in line.”
Historians say people have been marking the year change for thousands of years.
The ancient Romans celebrated in a way similar to ours.
“It was a day of public celebration. People spent the day playing, eating and drinking,” College de France historian John Scheid said. “During the period of the empire — the first four centuries AD — this originally Roman custom became a general festival in the whole Roman world and so it remained until today.”
Jan. 1 became the day widely marked as New Year’s Day only in 46 BC, when Roman emperor Julius Caesar introduced a new calendar. March 1 had been the first day of the year until then.
However, Medieval Europe continued celebrating New Year’s Day on dates with religious significance, including Christmas.
In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII replaced the Julian calendar with the Gregorian one, correcting mathematical inconsistencies.
Most Catholic countries immediately adopted the calendar and its Jan. 1 start, but Protestant nations did so only gradually.
Britain and its then-colonies, including the US, were among the last to introduce the new calendar, starting in 1752.
While most of the world has now adopted Jan. 1 as the official start of the year, some still hold their festivities on other dates.