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10 of the weirdest New Year’s traditions from around the world

It’s almost 2023, and you know what that means. Be it a dry Christmas, an embarrassing Spotify Wrapped, or a failure in securing a partner for the cuffing season, it’s that time of the year when we all collectively chant and manifest the affirmation: “What happens in 2022, stays in 2022.”

For some, New Year’s Eve doesn’t mean more than ticking another night off their calendars. However, others need an extra push to remind themselves about the clean slate that the time brings—along with the opportunity to turn over a new leaf promising a healthier and more productive life. From wearing colourful underwear to smashing plates on your neighbour’s door, here are some of the weirdest New Year’s traditions that take place around the world to reign in the ‘next chapter’.

1. Italy: toss furniture out the window

In some parts of Italy, such as Naples (or Napoli), Italians really take the ‘new year, new me’ approach very seriously. Following the motto of ‘out with the old’, the annual tradition is to throw away old or unwanted furniture—including toasters and refrigerators—from balconies to symbolise a fresh start for the year ahead.

Word of caution: let’s hope the locals stick to smaller and lighter objects. Nevertheless, it’s always a good idea to watch your head in case you’re planning to travel to Naples (or Johannesburg and South Africa, where this custom is also practised).

2. Scotland: first-footing

Scotland has the tradition of something called a first-footing (‘quaaltagh’ or ‘qualtagh’), which believes the first foot (a person) that crosses the threshold after midnight on New Year’s Eve will bring the best luck for the house.

In many areas, the first foot should bestow symbolic gifts such as coal, coins, bread, salt, or whisky. Generally, the tradition requires the first foot to be a tall, dark-haired male who is not already in the house when midnight strikes. I wouldn’t object to a tall, dark-haired man walking through my front door purely for good luck, that’s for sure.

3. Germany: pocketed carp scales

In a bid to usher in new beginnings, people in Germany traditionally enjoy a meal of Silvesterkarpfen, which translates to ‘New Year’s carp’. The fish can either be steamed, fried, or smoked. Given how carps are quite expensive and hard to find, it has hence become a superstitious belief to pluck a scale from the fish and keep it in your wallet for the entire year—with the hopes of it bringing abundance and money. Stanky, if you ask me.

On a side note, people in the country also melt small pieces of lead in a spoon over a candle and pour the liquid into cold water. Dubbed Bleigießen, or ‘lead pouring’, the bizarre shapes that are formed by the liquid are supposed to reveal what the new year has in store for you.

For instance, if the lead forms a ball, it means that luck will roll your way. While the shape of a crown means wealth, a cross signifies death and a star will bring happiness.

4. Philippines: round food, round clothes, round everything

In the Philippines, the new year is all about money, honey! With hopes of bringing prosperity and wealth for the year to come—just like the Germans—Filipinos believe that, by surrounding themselves with round things (derived from the shape of coins), they will ultimately entice more money into their lives.

So, expect a lot of polka-dot clothing and round-shaped food being passed around this time of the year. To really cement their wishes for good fortune, people in the country also carry coins in their pockets and constantly jangle them. This is believed to keep the money flowing.

5. Japan: 108 rings

With a less spherical context in mind, Japanese new year (or ‘Oshogatsu’) is welcomed at midnight with 108 bells being rung in Buddhist temples all over the country in order to banish the 108 worldly desires that humans have.

These desires are believed to cause pain and suffering to the human heart, and the ringing of bells (called ‘Joya no Kane’) is believed to cleanse our sins from the previous year. Traditionally, 107 bells are rung on the last day of the year and the 108th strike is carried out during New Year’s Eve. People in the country also eat buckwheat noodles (called ‘toshikoshi soba’) at this time to symbolise their hopes for a long life.

6. Latin America: colourful underwear

In Latin American countries, especially Mexico, Bolivia, and Brazil, your year ahead is determined by the colour of your undergarments on New Year’s Eve. Yes, you read that right.

Traditionally, red undies will bring love and romance, yellow leads to wealth and success, white stands for peace and harmony, and green signifies well-being and nature. In Turkey, red undergarments are also handed out as gifts for good luck and the promise of a fruitful new year. Now my question is, does it still count if I layer them all up for the night?

7. Ecuador: burning scarecrows

In Ecuador, locals build scarecrow dolls of people—including pop stars, politicians, and other notable figures—using old clothes stuffed with newspaper or sawdust. The figures are then adorned with a mask and bonfired up at midnight on New Year’s Eve. This essentially symbolises the cleansing of any ill fortune that has happened in the previous year.

The tradition, called ‘año viejo’ (old year), can hold extra cleansing credit for those who jump over the flames that their scarecrows burn in for a sum total of 12 times, representing each month of the year.

8. Denmark: breaking plates

Danish people carry the tradition of smashing plates and dishes against the doors of their neighbours, friends, and family to wish them good luck for the year ahead. Do you love someone and want to wish them well? Hurl a plate at their apartment door as hard as you can! Makes sense, right?

All year round, unused plates are saved up for 31 December and it is believed that the bigger the pile of broken plates, the more friends and luck you’ll have in the coming year. Another custom in Denmark witnesses people jumping off chairs at midnight, symbolising the literal leap into the new year when the clock strikes 12.

9. Spain: eat 12 grapes

In Spain, if you eat 12 grapes (known as ‘las doce uvas de la suerte’ or the twelve grapes of luck) at every strike starting 12 seconds before midnight, you will be bestowed with good luck and wealth for the entire year to come—if you finish them in time, that is. Here, the favoured way is to take a bite, then swallow the two grape halves whole.

The taste of the grape, be it sweet or sour, also determines the type of prosperity waiting for you in the new year. Sounds easy enough, right? But I can assure you that it is anything but. Heck, you can wish a romantic New Year’s Eve snog goodbye too. I’m talking drool, everywhere.

10. Finland: cast tin

In Finland, with every New Year’s Eve comes fortune telling. Around this time of the year, you would traditionally be given a small piece of tin that is shaped like a horse shoe—the symbol of good luck in many places of the world. The miniature horse shoe is then melted to form a liquid and quickly tossed into a bucket of cold water (similar to the German tradition of melting lead in a spoon) which immediately hardens it into an irregular shape. They are later examined and interpreted to predict the events to come in the next year. If the cast breaks into pieces, well… I don’t need to tell you what that means.

So, what are you waiting for? Now that you’ve completed your crash course in the numerous weird and wonderful New Year’s traditions around the world, why don’t you try your own hand at a few of them? Or you can go ahead and showcase your wealth of fresh knowledge at that house party you’re invited to. The choice is yours, and the future is too.

Master the art of ‘new year, new me’ using behavioural psychology

Failing to keep New Year’s resolutions is just about as popular as making them in the first place. In fact, 25 per cent of people who make a New Year’s resolution are proven to give up by 7 January every year. Many of us are enticed by the clean slate that the time brings along with the opportunity to turn over a new leaf, so we make vows to become healthier, happier and more productive. I mean, who doesn’t want a good excuse to at least try to ditch their bad habits and toxic relationships? But why do so many of us fail, or often give up completely?

Fortunately, behavioural psychologists have been investigating what makes people turn good intentions into long-term habits for over 100 years now. If you want to ensure that your resolutions don’t fail, try using these five tricks from behaviour change psychology to master the art of ‘new year, new me’:

The 21 day myth

Most people would say that it takes 21 days to form a habit, but according to science, that’s a myth. It turns out that 21 days is the minimum amount of time needed, but on average it actually takes around two months to form a new habit. Sometimes, it can even take up to eight whole months if the habit involves a significant lifestyle change.

The length of time needed really depends on how much of a lifestyle change you’re aiming for—for example, deciding to eat a piece of fruit every day will be fairly easy to integrate into your existing routine. However, if you’re trying to overhaul and revamp your entire diet, don’t be disappointed if you don’t develop new taste buds within a month. Forming new habits is a process, and embracing a longer timeline means that you allow enough time to fail and learn from it, rather than seeing it as a reason for giving up.

When it comes to making New Year’s resolutions that stick, try implementing mini habits that you can progressively add into your routine every month. Success is more likely to follow if you set small goals based on achieving a larger goal, as multiple short-term goals are guaranteed to help motivate you in the pursuit of your long-term ambitions. For example, if you want to improve your diet, start with smaller changes like making healthier swaps while you’re out grocery shopping or trying one new recipe a week. Sounds like a good start, right?

Bribe your brain with dopamine

In 2017, a group of researchers investigated why only some people were able to stick to their resolutions with ease while most failed miserably. They were surprised to discover that only one thing predicted long-term success. Surprisingly, it didn’t matter how motivated people were, nor how important they believed their resolutions to be. The only factor that predicted adherence to a long-term goal was whether someone actively enjoyed the behaviour they performed to achieve the goal.

When you enjoy something, the psychological process releases the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter dopamine, which leads to feelings of pleasure and happiness. Many addictive habits—such as smoking, drinking alcohol or eating junk food—are highly rewarding because they result in an instant spike of dopamine. Our brains are hardwired to prefer activities that quickly reward us with this neurotransmitter, which means you have to get creative when it comes to resolutions based on long-term benefits.

One way to do that is by pairing a highly rewarding behaviour (say drinking coffee) with a healthy habit to create a positive association in your brain. For instance, if you want to exercise before work and you love drinking coffee in the morning, make it a rule to only drink coffee after putting your gym clothes on or treat yourself to a coffee on your way to the gym. Soon your brain will learn to associate gym preps with the enjoyment of drinking coffee.

Although tackling addictive behaviour is more difficult, there are ways to break the vicious cycle between cravings and bad habits. London-based psychiatrist and addiction expert, Doctor Alberto Pertusa, recommends trying the famous five-second rule to override cravings. The rule is pretty simple: as soon as you crave something—like a strong drink or a cigarette—start counting backwards (5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0). As soon as you finish counting, you have to immediately launch into any kind of physical activity without much thought, so that there’s no time for your thoughts to creep back in.

The 5-second rule works because counting backwards requires more mental effort than counting forwards, thus engaging the prefrontal cortex in your brain to temporarily override cravings or procrastination. Launching yourself into another activity also helps to distract and stimulate your brain, which reduces the desire for dopamine. In Doctor Pertusa’s experience, using the five-second rule to improve willpower can become a positive habit in itself, although it may not work for everyone.

Resistance is futile

Have you ever tried to stop thinking about something, only to end up obsessing over it instead? Psychology studies have confirmed that trying to give up a bad habit by simply telling yourself not to do it can ironically lead to a behavioural rebound effect.

In one such study, people who tried to stop thinking about eating chocolate for a mere five minutes actually ended up eating more than people who didn’t. Resolutions that focus on avoiding or suppressing a specific behaviour work in similar ways. Another large-scale study of over 1,000 people discovered that New Year’s resolutions based on avoidance were far less successful than ones driven by positive motivation in the long term.

That doesn’t mean you can’t give up a bad habit, but instead of trying to avoid it (and maybe failing to), resolve to replace it with a new one instead. Most (highly rewarding) bad habits are triggered by stress or boredom, so choosing a replacement activity that’s also similar or just as enjoyable can trick your brain out of craving it.

The law of least effort

Want to know why some people exercise, but most of us don’t? According to Professor Seppo Iso-Ahola, exercise undermines our sense of freedom on an unconscious level. While it may sound odd to think of yoga as a form of dictatorship, exercise poses a threat by removing our freedom of choice and taking up our leisure time.

Most of us have a few precious hours of free time a day, so we may begin to unconsciously resent how much time we spend not only exercising itself, but also getting ready or travelling to and from the gym. Over time, our willpower begins to weaken as our conscious desire to exercise battles against our unconscious ones to just chill (what our brain calls libertarian freedom and autonomy of choice). Over time, this depletes our mental energy, so eventually, when faced with the decision of whether or not to exercise, our brain follows the ‘law of least effort’—and we end up binge-watching TV instead.

To combat the law of least effort and overthrow your brain’s libertarian ideologies, you would have to resort to a psychological mind game by creating a forced choice.

To do this, feed your brain with the illusion of autonomy by allowing yourself to choose different activities depending on your mood or how much free time you have. The trick is that all your options have to involve some form of exercise, which makes it mentally easier than ‘all or nothing’ decisions about the activity. For example, if you normally go for a run but you’re tired, you can choose to go for a walk instead. If it’s raining, you’ll have to exercise indoors. You get the idea.

Make it more fun with foreplay

You may have realised by now that your brain is very demanding when it comes to behaviour change. If you want to make things more enjoyable, it’s time to engage in cognitive foreplay.

To explain how this works, it might be helpful to compare it with having a crush on someone. When you like someone, your brain tumbles you into having positive thoughts about them spontaneously, which pop up in your head often throughout the day. What’s fascinating about behaviour change is that you can convince your brain to do the same with specific habits—by actively concentrating and savouring the positive experience while you’re doing it, and also reminding yourself of how nice it was throughout the day.

Savouring the positive experience will lead to spontaneous positive thoughts about it, which fosters motivation on an unconscious level to repeat the activity. Previous studies have shown that people who do this become increasingly sensitive in their ability to derive greater enjoyment from performing positive health behaviours. On a biological level, this essentially rewires your brain to activate the pleasure and reward centres more often—call it cognitive foreplay, if you like.

What have we learned?

Humans are creatures of habit which are formed due to a complex interplay of conscious and unconscious desires—strengthened over time with routine, repetition and positive rewards. Behaviour psychology reinforces the fact that we have the power to mould both our brain’s biology and behaviour, meaning that New Year’s resolutions can be a powerful catalyst for change if we approach our resolutions the right way. So what are you waiting for? Whip out your digital devices and start curating your 2022 vision board as a step in the right direction today.

Anna McLaughlin is an academic Neuroscientist and the Founder of Sci-translate, a digital science communication agency, based in London, UK. With a PhD in Neuroscience & Psychology, MSc in Psychiatric Research and BSc in Psychological Science, she specialises in the neuroscience of wellbeing, which spans mental health, physical health, nutrition, immune function, fitness, sleep and productivity.