Humans have celebrated the passage from one year to the next for millennia, but has there ever been a year that we have all, universally, wanted to see the end of more than 2020?


As if New Year plans weren’t hard enough ordinarily, we’re now having to navigate the labyrinth of COVID restrictions. Like everything else in 2020, New Year will feel decidedly different and, in Britain, the joy of leaving that binfire of a year behind will taste bittersweet as January means feeling the full impact of Brexit. Sob! 


However, let’s not dwell on the negativity. Instead, like a hand desperately hunting for green triangles in the Quality Street tin, let’s dive into the history of New Year’s traditions in our beloved Europe for some inspiration on how we might celebrate a the turning of the calendar with a corona-compliant twist.


Burn a Yule log

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Yes, fire sounds like a drastic start. However, long before Yule logs were chocolatey treats, they were actual logs burnt by Vikings in a pagan festival. Called jól, or Yule, the festival predates Christmas itself and marked the winter solstice at the end of December, when they would burn a log in honour of their gods.


Several hundred years – and some Viking invasions – later, people in Medieval Britain took to burning Yule logs as part of the 12 Days of Christmas. Families would decorate a mighty chunk of trunk before burning it from Christmas Day until January 6. In some communities, this process symbolised burning away negativity or resentment from the previous year and starting a new.


Now, we could use this as an excuse to cosy up around a fire and reflect on the year – or, we could go full ‘pagan’ and carry out a cleansing ritual reminiscent of Monica, Rachel, and Phoebe in Friends. Rather than burning momentos of past boyfriends, though, I’d suggest burn souvenirs of 2020’s relentless negativity: tickets from cancelled gigs, for example, or old facemasks and unopened travel guides.


On second thoughts, book burning might be a step too far – maybe stick to cosying up around a fire. 


Work out (nudity optional)

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Even in history, we can’t escape the ‘New Year, New You’ vibes. At least not in Ancient Athens anyway, where the new year saw the Greeks toning up at the gym. However, rather than dusting off a Jane Fonda DVD after some festive overindulging, ancient Greek training started early, leading up to Athens’ spectactular New Year’s athletic games.


While Olympia had the Olympics, Athens had the Panathenaic Games. Athenian men –  women weren’t allowed as they were too busy ovulating presumably – competed in all sorts of athletic feats such as running, wrestling, javelin and long jump. Oh yes – and all the athletes were entirely naked bar a leather cord that kept their modesty tucked away from any rogue javelin. 


So, while naked long jump might be off the table unless you want to worry the neighbours, perhaps athletics could make an alternative way to welcome in 2021? Why not take the plunge and finally join a New Year’s Day swim (socially distanced, of course)? Or how about an online workout at home? I’m eagerly awaiting Joe Wicks’ undoubted next release, a ‘20 Minute Ancient Athenian New Year Work Out’.


Create carnage

Image: Lightfield Studios/Shutterstock


Look into historical celebrations long enough and you’ll inevitably find some animal sacrifice – or in the case of Ancient Athens, a lot of it. Their New Year fell in the month catchily called Hekatombaion which, simply put, means ‘the sacrifice of 100 oxen’. Sadly, it wasn’t metaphorical.


Alongside their naked athletics, Athenians took part in a grand procession, herding oxen up to the Acropolis, the citadel that still overlooks the capital. Here, they were sacrificed in honour of the goddess Athena.


Now, it’s tricky to feel inspired by this. Given the rise of veganism, a little New Year animal sacrifice to start 2021 will likely go down like a sack of Quorn sausages. However, one loose interpretation would be to just create carnage.


Gather the food, drink, and treats remaining from the festive season and, either as a group or solo, go to town on it with the determination of a sacrifice to the gods. There should be discarded Terry’s Chocolate Orange carcasses everywhere. I want to see gravy stains on the curtains, and if there isn’t bubble-and-squeak on the wall then you’re not doing it right. 


Warning, this will be followed by another January 1st tradition: the clean-up.


Eat 12 grapes

Image: Jerry Wang/Unsplash


From animal sacrifice to something much tamer. In Spain and parts of Latin America it was ­– and still is – tradition to welcome in the new year by eating 12 grapes in quick succession. At the stroke of midnight, locals pop green grapes into their mouths with every chime of the clock bell. The aim? To devour them all once the final bell tolls to secure good luck for the year ahead.


It’s hard to believe this custom is just over a century old. The legend of the uvas de la suerte, (lucky grapes), starts in Alicante, Spain in 1909 where it’s said that a bumper grape harvest led the marketing-savvy authorities to promote grape- eating as a New Year tradition. 


This commercial origin is, admittedly, a little disappointing, and it’s also strange that such a recent tradition is already surrounded by such superstition. Families now race to gobble the grapes on New Year’s Eve in a bid for good luck. Griping aside though, who doesn’t need some extra mojo for 2021? So, if you’re looking for an activity that combines healthy snacks with friendly competition, why not pop some green grapes in your gob? Come to think of it, a glass or twelve of white wine might also count…


Postpone New Year

Image: Ryan Pernofski/Unsplash


If the above historical titbits are failing to inspire, then how about copying our ancient ancestors by celebrating New Year in spring or summer?


The Ancient Romans celebrated their New Year around March, when the day and night are equal in length. Over in the Middle East about 4,000 years ago, March was also when the Babylonians celebrated their New Year festival, Akitu. 


Meanwhile, in 6th-4th century BC Athens, the Athenians’ naked New Year games and oxen sacrifice actually kicked off in July. Even the ancient Egyptians marked their New Year with the flooding of the Nile in summertime.


Frankly, New Year in the spring or summer just makes more sense. Dancing on the beach? A family barbeque in the garden? Our predecessors were onto something. 


Image: Annie Spratt/Unsplash


So, in summary, New Year’s Eve is bound to be different – but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be celebrated, even if the party is pushed to Easter. After millennia of welcoming in the new year, why break with tradition now?


If history proves anything it’s that there have been, and continue to be, some truly wacky ways to celebrate. So why not adopt some historical festivities from Europe in a last bid attempt to feel European? Or even better, make up your own new tradition? After all, the only thing we do know about what’s to come is that, frankly, business as usual isn’t an option…


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