Come along with me now, as, with Baedeker in hand, I take imaginary flight from my tidy little flat in Kensington and begin a transcontinental party-hop to sample the oddest and quaintest kinds of New Year’s traditions from all over the world.
We begin with the gelid custom called Kill The Stag, a centuries old New Year’s practice in the city of Cherkasy, Ukraine. As the new year approaches, people of the town gather in pairs at an appointed home or pub to celebrate the strength of human love. The couples drink, eat and dance, loosening their inhibitions. They gradually single out and turn their attentions to the one of the few attendees who have arrived alone. At the turn of midnight, the paired celebrants kiss while the singleton observes. Then the couples seize the unpaired celebrant and carry him or her to the frigid Dnieper River, where he or she is immersed and then ridiculed for half an hour. This is considered a great, if paradoxical, honor, but it also serves as a powerful incentive to find a companion before the next New Year’s Eve rolls around.
Come on, old chap–let’s take a giant leap to Marka, Norway, the forested and hilly area bordering Oslo, where the people gather around their dining room tables for The Terrible Stare. Families sit in silence, staring into each other’s pained red eyes for hours, marveling at how much emotional distance can form between people who share the same blood. Family members are encouraged to fully explore the terror of sharing another year of the typically alienated Scandinavian style of life into which they have been born. At the end of one hour, they put on heavy gloves of reindeer hide and hold hands for thirty seconds.
Brrr! Let’s leave Norway behind to go to the warmer environs of Luhimba, a remote village of Tanzania, where we’ll give a listen to some Confessions. Villagers gather around a fire and declare the crimes they’ve committed against God, their neighbors, and loved ones. Then they retrieve red-hot sticks from the fire and brand themselves just above the left ankle. Almost every crime is seen as a brand-yourself-above-the-left-ankle offense, whether it be felony assault or price-fixing. Before this bizarre self-mutilation, wrongdoers are permitted to shout, “And I would have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for this meddling New Year’s tradition.” Of a particularly rotten Luhimban egg, fellow-villagers during the year are wont to say, “I bet he’s got quite a left shank on him!”
Back to the continent we go, to Alba Lulia, Romania, where we will Watch The Goat Drop. People journey to the base of the Carpathian Mountains, where they stand in the freezing temperatures for many hours, under the command of military escort to remain still and keep order. They stare up at the highest peak, where the village’s oldest man gives the command to drop a 50 kg goat at the turn of the new year. When the clock strikes midnight, the goat falls to the ground and dies and the oldest man is thrown over the edge after him, at which point the people are allowed to return to their homes. How very primal, one might say. Among elder citizens of Alba Lulia during the year, there is much falsification of birth certificates, as you may well imagine.
Well, by Jove, here we are at home in Merrie Olde, where the customs at least make a bit of sense! The desperate drinking, the adulterous shag in the garage, the vomiting, the ritual lampshade on the head, the singing of a song whose title no one understands, the shrieking of a countdown, the despair over job insecurity–let’s admit it, friends. There is after all such a thing as civilization.
Bob Powers is the author of several humor books, including The Werewolf’s Guide To Life and Happy Cruelty Day. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.