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Midnight Madness: How the Rest of the World Lives on New Year’s Eve

New Year's Day does not begin and end in Times Square. In fact, those of us in North America are actually the final guardians of last year, with the rest of the world (Australia, Asia, Africa, Europe) leading us into the New Year—midnight striking there long before it strikes here. And while no two New Year's celebrations are alike—the Japanese slurp on lucky soba noodles, the Spanish wear lucky red underwear—commonalities do prevail. It's precisely this quality, the ability to make the world at once foreign and familiar, that helps make New Year's so indelible.

As the first major city to ring in the New Year, Sydney hosts one of the largest New Year's Eve gatherings in the world. 1.6 million attendees typically flood the SydneyHarbor for three massive pyrotechnic displays—one early for families, another at midnight for late-night revelers and a quickie round in-between to keep enthusiasm rolling during the lull. The festivities land in the midsummer; and so, many people take to the sea to view the fireworks as they're launched from the Harbor Bridge. (For those more comfortable on terra firma, Mrs Macquaries Point and the forecourt of the Opera House provide equally stunning views of the brilliant explosions.) Afterward, everyone disperses to more individualized celebrations throughout the city (clubs, bars, house parties) as the bash keeps going in true Aussie fashion. Translation—lots of drinking is involved.


Tokyo might have a reputation for being over-the-top, but its observance of New Year's Eve is delightfully reverent. Throughout the night the top-rated musical event of the year, a battle-of-the-sexes sing-off starring the year's biggest Japanese pop stars, airs on televisions and big screens nationwide. Meanwhile, out in the streets, the masses queue up at Shinto temples all over the city to ring the Joya no Kane ("New Year's Eve Bells"), with the last of the 108 tolls (one for each desire) taking place at midnight. Few are better positioned than those at the Zojoji Temple, which is around the corner from the Tokyo Tower, where observing the date roll over is the Japanese equivalent of watching the ball drop in Times Square. All the while, the city's izakaya (basically a Japanese pub) serve a traditional New Year's meal of toshikoshi (loosely translated to mean "end the old year and enter the new year soba noodles"). The noodle's characteristics serve as metaphor for good fortune to come: length for longevity, soft texture for overcoming hardships and an association with wealth that traces back to metalworkers in the Edo period who used buckwheat to collect gold and silver flecks.

InGoa,India's smallest state, New Year's Eve celebrations rage harder than in places much larger. Located along the warm turquoise waters of the Arabian Sea, the notorious backpacker haunt began as a mecca for hippies in the late 1960s before evolving into the full-on party capital it is today. On December 31, come prepared to dance from sunset until dawn as the world's elite party promoters and DJs flock to Goa. The multitude of beachfront clubs offer something to suit every musical preference; dubstep, trance, house, pop—they're all here. Evening light shows enhance the music, while the fireworks that go off at midnight elevates the atmosphere.

In accordance to strict Islamic doctrine, many Middle Eastern countries have banned the celebration of the Western New Year. However, laws are made to be worked around. That's where Bahrain comes in. Each year, upwards of 80,000 cars take the half-mile King Fahd Causeway from Saudi Arabia to spend New Year's Eve on the small island nation, which permits the consumption of alcohol and fraternization among men and women. And so, holiday merriment is easy to find. This is especially true along Exhibition Road, where nightclubs, hotel galas and nonthreatening street mischief (i.e., local kids throwing eggs at each other) are found in abundance.

Back in the frozen north, Moscow greets the New Year in Red Square. Partying in the shadow of Saint Basil's Cathedral, sandwiched between Lenin's Tomb and the traditional chiming of the Kremlin clock, the atmosphere is similar to that of Times Square—but distinctly Russian at the same time. Everyone drinks heavily to guard against the cold, with Russian champagne playing second fiddle only to vodka (duh). Street vendors and performers dress up like fallen political figures, while Grandfather Frost, a ZZ Top-looking Santa dressed in blue, sneaks into parties and delivers gifts when no one's looking.


In Cape Town, New Year's Eve is more of a slow burn, extending for days rather than a single night. On December 31, the iconic Table Mountain stays open late specifically for the holiday and offers panoramic vistas of the fireworks launched from Cape Town's famed working harbor, the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. Below, 80,000 euphoric people move about like ants, accompanied by tiny explosions of light emanating from traditional hand-held "poppers." When the sun rises on January 1, the streets fill with dancing, competing brass bands and parades of noise-making locals in brightly colored dress and face paint to commemorate the "Second New Year," a tradition dating back to the 17th century in which January 2 was the only day of the year slaves were dismissed from work.

The action during La Nochevieja (Spain's name New Year's Eve) primarily occurs in Puerta del Sol, where the well-dressed masses pay close attention to the clocktower. As it strikes midnight, everyone produces grapes from their pockets and pops a single grape in their mouth at each toll. Together, the 12 pieces of fruit (paired with superstitious red underwear worn for the same reason) guarantee luck in the coming year. After the fruit comes fireworks, dancing, cava (no champagne, please) and partying until the sun comes up over the Mediterranean.


Small enough to navigate on foot with almost no crime, Reykjavik is an ideal setting for wintry jollification. Early in the evening, everyone tunes into Áramótaskaupið ("The New Year's Comedy"), a brutal roast of the year's events. Hallgrimskirkja, the city's stunning, sci-fi looking church, sounds its bells at midnight before a modest pyrotechnics display pays homage to a tradition that seems silly in the land of the Northern Lights. Long known for their crazy rúnturs (Friday and Saturday night drunkfests), Icelanders only head out after midnight to begin their public celebrations—primarily along Laugavegur Street, where bars serve copious amounts of Icelandic spirits such as Brennivin, Reyka vodka and Viking beer.

On New Year's Eve, millions of people flock to Rio de Janeiro's sweeping Copacabana beach for the second most widely celebrated holiday in the country. The collective effect of enough fireworks to light two miles of white sand beach is as jaw-dropping as it is gratuitous. With street performers and live music on all sides, locals toss flowers into the water as an offering to the sea goddess. The Copacabana Palace Hotel boasts the most lauded vantage point in the city, with five-star meals and views worthy of the steep price. Just remember: Even at the Palace's black-tie events, Brazilians wear white with only pops of color since white clothing is thought to bring good luck and a clean slate into the New Year.


San Juan is a lively mishmash of American and Spanish New Year's Eve traditions. The day beginswith a deep house cleaning to dispense of any residual nastiness from the previous year. Then two options present themselves. The island's upper crust file into the Condado District's beachfront five-star hotels for galas with a relatively cheap admission price compared to similar affairs in the world's bigger cities. There, partygoers rub shoulders with Puerto Rican celebrities and scenesters while enjoying a front-row ticket to each hotel's unique set of pyrotechnics. While certainly more gorgeous, these soirees lack the Wild-West character of local street parties, where the common man might have a sparkler in one hand and a pistol (borne with only the best intentions, of course) in the other. When midnight arrives, it's tradition to fire celebratory shots in the air. Not surprisingly, balas perdidas (or "lost bullets") have become a sore subject (i.e., their landing places are unpredictable). In both cases, there is dancing, music and singing—primarily "Auld Lang Syne" in Spanish—once again demonstrating that it's not such a big world after all.

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Photo courtesy of Raelene Gutierrez

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