Europe-wide rituals to celebrate the New Year

Orkney Islands
Celebrate the New Year early on the Orkney Islands. Photo: I Know UK

A lot of folk in Scotland sleep in on New Year’s Day. The indulgences of Hogmanay take their toll on body and soul alike. A long sleep and a cold shower are the only effective remedies. But, quite contrary to the rest of Scotland, Orcadians are often up bright and early on January 1.

Kicking off the new year in the Orkney Islands

On New Year’s day, the Orkney town of Kirkwall hosts one of the most bizarre sporting events of the winter season. The “ba” is a strange version of rugby which attracts several hundred participants. The port town has two kinds of citizens: the “uppies,” born south of Kirkwall’s squat red cathedral, and the “doonies,” who hail from the nether regions north of the cathedral. The “ba” refers both to the game itself and to the leather ball cast into the crowd at the Mercat Cross in the center of town.

The aim of the game is simple: catch the “ba” and take it back to your part of town. What looks to the uninitiated like a mere scrum is, at its best, a game of clever tactics. False breaks deceive the opposition and locals tell us that for much of the game most of the crowd have no inkling where the ba actually is.

Collecting ice on Mount Etna

Now if that seems like an oddball way of spending New Year’s Day then why not follow the thousands of Sicilians who will mark the start of 2011 by driving on snowy roads up the side of Mount Etna. No one expects to get very far in wintry weather, but the summit is not the goal. Snow gathered from the slopes of Etna on New Year’s Day makes the finest granita. At least, that’s the view in Sicily where granita is the local take on sorbet: a delicate icy crush flavored with freshly squeezed fruit juice and honey.

The agenda for the day is simple. Leave early, pause in Zefferana for Mass or an espresso (or both) and then follow the winding road up the mountain, past shrines and old lava flows, to the snow line. Snow is packed into ice boxes and onto the roofs of cars – the latter a melting testament that for a few hours confirms that the driver has made the celebrated Etna run.

Eating cake in Greece

New Year’s Day is Greece is altogether simpler than in Orkney or Sicily. In Greece, the start of a new year is a time to eat cake. Not any cake, but Vasilópita, a specialty baked in honor of St Basil whose feast is celebrated in the Greek Orthodox tradition on January 1. According to Greek custom, families invoke a blessing on their houses by sharing Vasilópita.

This Greek house-blessing ritual anticipates a cultural antic that is a feature of Catholic regions of central Europe later in January. In areas from Alsace to Bohemia, from the Baltic to the Alps, house blessings are associated with the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6.

Blessing houses in central Europe

Greeks have it easy. Blessing your house just means eating cake. In central Europe, the whole affair is more complicated as singers progress from house to house, dressed as the biblical three kings who are said to have followed a star to Bethlehem. Households that oblige with an offering for charitable causes are blessed and an inscription is made in chalk over the lintel. Next week’s mark will read:

20 C+M+B 11

The mark thus includes the year and the initials of the three kings: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. The same three letters also recall the Catholic blessing “Christus mansionem benedicat” (viz. “May Christ bless this house”).

To all travelers a good start into the new year!

About the author

hiddeneurope
About the authors: Nicky and Susanne manage a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine.
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