Is there any holiday as universally looked upon optimistically as New Years Day? After all, it's so much more than flipping another calendar page (even discounting that once-a-year purchase of a new calendar). In addition, it marks the end of a holiday season many find the most stressful part of the year.
Is there any holiday as laden with tradition as New Years Day? Each culture has put a different spin on the day, adding its own unique twist to the annual psychological rebirth, although in many cultures the most time-honored tradition is identical: Hangover recovery.
New Year's Eve celebrations in America, like seemingly so many winter holidays, focus on eating and American football. (Especially on First Day 2006, a year in which both Christmas Day and New Years Day fall on a Sunday, meaning the professionals join the college games in a frenzy that may begin the year with a football widow's threats of divorce.) Many cultures have distinct culinary traditions. In several Central/Eastern European nations (Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, Hungary, Romania), fish soup is eaten on New Year's Eve, while at least a few lentils should be eaten on New Year's Day in order to achieve prosperity in the new year. In Japan, that special food is miso soup.
Naturally, it doesn't just stop at food. For luck, Japanese folks often string a rope across their door. In Canada, a bunch of (probably a bit tweaked) people jump in freezing water and call themselves "polar bears" for the day. In some German-speaking countries (notably Austria and Switzerland), some wear costumes. And in Scotland, particularly in villages, barrels of tar are alit. (Perhaps in Scotland, there are no hangovers.)
For the majority of the world's population, New Years Day is not even celebrated on January 1. Indeed, its origins in ancient Rome had the day in the springtime, and many still do so, though ironically, those areas formerly falling under the control of the caesars have taken on the January date. Springtime does seem the more logical time for a celebration of rebirth...
Traditions continue, though, in these springtime New Year's celebrations. Chinese New Year is fairly well-know worldwide thanks to its general pageantry and fun. Fireworks bang day and night, lanterns are lit everywhere, and the nighttime is always accented with the light of the full moon by which the holiday's date is set. India, too, is full of color on their day, with people wearing bright bright colors to enliven their year early. In some countries of the Far East, fish are the focus, but in the opposite fashion to Europe's. Often, fish are caught and released in a show of gratitude to gods of myth. And Persians, for whom New Year's Day can fall at any time of year, use sprouting grains to symbolize rebirth.
As for this writer and his family, well, we're Americans and consequently my sympathies lie with 300-pound dudes bashing the hell out of each other on Christmas. Nothing like a little physical conflict to get things started. You wanna talk rebirth? All right, how about the rebirth of the New England Patriots...?