Odd Lang Syne: 7 Creepy New Year’s Superstitions That’ll Keep You Up Past Midnight
By Carrie Bell
Sparklers and confetti? Check. Noisemakers? Yep. Champagne? Got the Costco bulk pack. Fresh baguette or sourdough boule to beat against the walls of your house during a New Year’s Eve party to chase away evil spirits? Er, uh ... maybe that’s one New Year custom you’re a little less familiar with.
When it comes to traditions that people embrace to ring in the new year, some are less known than others. And many are downright spooky—so much so that they could give Baby New Year and Father Time nightmares. Below are six unsettling superstitions from around the world that make December 31 feel more like October 31.
1. Use bread to scare away spirits that mean you harm.
That sourdough bread-baking hobby will come in handy if you want to partake in this old Irish New Year’s Eve tradition. Back in the day, residents of the Emerald Isle would bang loaves against doors and walls just before midnight to ward off any angry apparitions or problematic phantoms that might be lurking. Whacking wheat bread and clubbing ciabatta against the wall is also believed to send bad luck packing and ensure that your family won’t go hungry for the next 12 months.
2. Set a place at the dinner table for lost loved ones.
Another Irish New Year's Eve custom is to leave the door unlocked and set a place at the dinner table on New Year’s Eve to welcome back the spirits of loved ones who were lost during the last year. To some, it might suggest that Irish households are a revolving door of wanted and unwanted specters during this holiday.
3. Don’t even think about going into the laundry room on New Year’s Day.
For most people, doing laundry is an everyday household task. But as it turns out, there is a shocking number of spooky superstitions that revolve around performing this seemingly mundane chore around the new year. The most severe claims that if you clean clothes on January 1, you'll be “washing for the dead” and a member of your family will be washed away—which is really just a poetic way of saying someone you love with die at some point in the coming year. It will also send a year of good fortune spiraling down the drain.
Even the least ominous of these laundry-related superstitions is still no laughing matter: Tradition holds that if you wash a load of clothing on New Year's Day, you'll jinx yourself into having more laundry than usual all year. Hard pass, thanks.
4. Don’t get rid of anything until January 2—or else.
According to this New Year’s superstition, nothing—be it leftover pizza, empty wine bottles, you get the idea—should be removed from your house until after New Year’s Day. It was even a thing back in the Victorian era, although our 19th century forbears believed you could get rid of stuff with no problems, provided you replace whatever you toss with something new. Either way, the consequences for not adhering to this custom are dire. The idea is that it’ll set the tone for a steady stream of people and things to leave you in the year to come. If you want to avoid a year of misfortune, maybe hold off on the shopping sprees for a couple of days.
5. Burn effigies to get rid of last year’s bad vibes.
New Year’s Eve is particularly lit in Ecuador where, at the stroke of midnight, the country takes to the streets to burn effigies (referred to as monigotes) of politicians, pop culture figures, and other icons that represent the año viejo (“old year”). This is often after men dress as mourning widows, beg for money while in costume, and parade the dummies through the streets.
The symbolic cleansing dates back to an 1895 yellow fever outbreak. Back then, people stuffed caskets full of clothes from the deceased and set them ablaze as a literal and figurative purification ritual. Nowadays, some folks also hide messages in the monigotes, listing off all the bad things from the past year that they want to put behind them in the upcoming one. If you can’t afford an elaborate monigote of your own, you can use a simple scarecrow and mask. Added luck in the año nuevo ("new year") is also said to come to anyone who jumps the flame once for every month of the year.
6. Make lots of noise on New Year’s Eve—but don’t forget to open all the doors and windows.
At the risk of catching your death of cold, consider implementing an old strategy from the Philippines. Homeowners open all the doors and windows just before midnight to serve up an eviction notice to any bad juju that might be lingering around and usher positive auras into their abodes. That's not the only way to keep wicked wraiths from darkening your doorstep, either. According to Filipino tradition, the more noise you make on December 31, the better, as it’s also believed that a big ruckus helps to drive away evil spirits. You’ll have a reason to be loud (and scared) all over again when the extra-high heating bill from your party comes in the mail.
7. Dress up like a demon—and maybe ensure a good harvest.
Like Halloween, some New Year’s superstitions involve a costume change. In small villages around Japan, including Oga, young men dressed as the Namahage (a.k.a. ogre-like demons) go door to door to frighten lazy people. They also threaten to snatch away misbehaving children but back off once the head of the household offers sake and rice cakes. Basically, it's like Krampus, only significantly more menacing and tied to the new year instead of Christmas. These terrifying figures are also believed to bring protection from illness and disasters once appeased, as well as a good harvest and plentiful food year-round, so at least there's an upside.
This article originally ran in 2021 and has been updated for 2022.