Celebrating New Year's Across the World
Musical Traditions to Mark the Passing of Time
Regardless of culture or background, people across the world mark the passing of time with ceremonies and celebrations. Every year, we collectively imbue various moments in our shared personal histories with special significance. They become more than numbers on a calendar, or days of the week. These moments serve as signposts on our individual journeys. We use them to look back on how far we’ve come, and look forward to new adventures, better days ahead.
The celebration of the New Year is one such hallmark. In the western world, each December 31st, we say goodbye to the year that’s passed, and with big parties, fireworks displays, and plenty of music, we greet the new one beginning on January 1st. Different families, communities, and cultures have their own unique New Year’s traditions to add to these annual festivities. Every winter, when we usher in the new year with turn-of-the-century waltzes, polkas, and operetta excerpts, we are paying home to the decades-long Austrian tradition of the Neujahrskonzert.
Throughout the world, the New Year is demarcated at different times, and with different rituals, traditions, and musical celebrations. This week, as Jewish households all over the world prepare for their High Holiday season, we’re taking a moment to explore and celebrate other New Year’s traditions from around the globe.
Rich with traditions, the first days of the Hebrew calendar are full of symbolic customs, reflective introspection, and festive celebrations. Occurring in the autumn months, this two-day Jewish holiday is a time for family gatherings, with plenty of sweet foods like apples dipped in honey, to symbolize the hopes of a year full of delights. At the outset of the holiday, it’s customary to gather by a flowing body of water, like a river, and toss breadcrumbs into the rolling water, symbolically casting away the troubles of the past year.
Among the holiday’s most notable customs is the blowing of a shofar. This ancient musical instrument, traditionally crafted from a ram’s horn, is used throughout the holiday’s religious ceremonies, punctuating the moments of solemn reflection with a clear, resonant sound. The shofar is sounded hundreds of times during the two days of prayer, connecting individuals to their neighbours through a powerful, communal sound.
Chinese New Year
For more than 3,000 years, the Spring Festival marking the start of the Lunar calendar has been one of the most important holidays in China. Originally a ceremonial day of prayer for a good planting season and harvest, the Chinese New Year is now a two-week-long festival during which ancestors are honoured, families reunite over food, and elaborate fireworks display illuminate the night skies. It’s customary for every family to clean their homes thoroughly, so as to sweep away any bad spirits, and make way for good fortune.
The Chinese New Year celebrations feature music heavily. Scores of warm, upbeat songs have been written specifically for the festival season—not unlike Christmas carols in the West—and are played almost non-stop throughout the two-week period. Interested in learning one? Head to YouTube for a tutorial on one the most popular songs.
The name “Diwali” comes from the Sanskrit word deepavali, meaning “rows of lighted lamps.” It’s a fitting title for the annual Festival of Lights celebrated by millions of Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains across the globe each year. Coinciding with the harvest and new year season, Diwali is a five-day-long festival celebrating new beginnings and the triumph of good over evil. During Diwali, houses, shops, and other public places are decorated with oil lamps called diyas, and fireworks displays are featured throughout the celebration.
Traditionally, each day of Diwali has a different focus. The third day often involves large public gatherings like fairs, parades, and communal meals. These celebrations always feature a variety of performances, with uplifting music and joyful dance.
Over this past year, we’ve all certainly faced our share of difficulties. Regardless of where we’re from, or when we’re marking the year’s end, the coming New Year will bring with it a sense of true reflection. We’ve seen the world change drastically in just a matter of months. But if our collective traditions have taught us anything, it’s that the New Year is a time to prioritize family, and anticipate the future with hope, and celebration.