5 New Year’s Folktales From Around The World

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Watching a giant glittering sphere drop from the top of a tower, eating twelve grapes at midnight, or giving someone a peck when the fireworks go off may be familiar New Year’s celebrations and traditions. But have you heard about the dragon in China that ate entire villages until people used red paper and fireworks to scare it off, or the wind god who was so mad at his parents’ separation that he threw his eyes into the sky? The folktales associated with New Year’s are various, fascinating and sometimes not as well known as their traditional counterparts, so we’ve collected five from around the world for your perusal. So forget the New Year’s resolutions of joining the gym and finishing that novel, and instead, settle in with these 5 New Year’s Folktales From Around The World.
1. Elves, Iceland “Oh God, not another bloody elf!” a contemporary of Tolkien’s supposedly once said, but in Iceland, he would have said “Huldufolk”, also known as the Hidden People. Back in the day, it was apparently believed in Iceland that elves chose New Year’s Eve to invade human homes. Folktale collector Jón Árnason’s ‘Icelandic Folktales and Legends’  detailed how elves, invisible to the human eye unless they willed it otherwise, would use Christmas and the New Year to “change their dwellings, those being their moving days”. So women would clean the house, light candles and repeat a mantra to keep the household safe.

There seem to be a number of folktales associated with this time, including the tale of two sisters, one spoiled and one ill-treated. The badly treated sister is left at home on New Year’s Eve while her family goes to church. She cleans the house thoroughly, lights candles in all the rooms, and settles in with her bible. Elves come into the house and offer her gold and silver objects, and invite her to dance with them, but she keeps her eyes on the book, only raising them at dawn to praise God for the new day. At His name, the elves depart, leaving their bounty behind. The spoiled sister is jealous, and the next New Year’s Eve, she stays home but joins in the elves’ dance. She breaks her legs and goes out of her mind and the elves take their spoils with them.

While modern Icelanders don’t believe in elves, it’s still common to hold bonfires on New Year’s Eve, in keeping with the past tradition of the elves. And as if you needed it, you can always check out 12 Pictures + 7 Reasons Why You’ll Visit Iceland This Year.

2. The Eyes of the Wind God, New Zealand The New Year in the Maori calendar is signalled for many Maori by the rising of Matariki, or the Pleiades cluster of stars, according to Te Ara, the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand. The Maori New Year, which sees month-long celebrations in New Zealand, is tied to the legend of the separation of the Earth and the Sky. Papatuanuku, the earth mother, and Ranginui, the sky father, were once bound together, seemingly inseparable, but their children found this situation uncomfortable, trapped between them as they were. So they came up with a plan to push them apart, and all were for it, except for the god of the winds, Tāwhirimātea, who was so angry at his parents’ severing that he tore out his own eyes and hurled them into the heavens, where they became Matariki, the star cluster which rises in the Southern Hemisphere’s winter.

While taking part in Matariki, you could also indulge your inner Lord of the Rings fan and check out 6 Locations For Tolkien Fans to See.

3. Nian, China The turn of the Chinese Lunar Year is associated with a man-eating monster. Is that the best sentence you’ve read today? Tales associated with the New Year vary, but many involve Nian, a dragon-like monster that would arrive at the beginning of each new year to devour villagers, Haiwang Yuan writes. One tale goes that an old man visited a village that was preparing to flee Nian, and begged for food there. A woman gave him some bread and advised him to leave, but the man told her he preferred to stay. The woman lets him remain in her house, and left with the other villagers, and that night, Nian visited the town, looking for prey. It reared back in horror from the woman’s house, for the old man had covered it in red paper and lit many candles. He sprung from the dwelling holding burning bamboo sticks, which crackled loudly, and Nian fled in terror. The villagers returned the next day to find the woman’s house unharmed and the man gone, and decided he had been immortal, come to give them guidance regarding the Nian. The custom of using red paper, having lights burning all night and burning bamboo sticks spread from that day, Yuan writes.

So think about Nian the next time you see red paper decorations at Chinese New Year! In China, there are various foods associated with Chinese New Year as well, or you could always try tangyuan, a Unique Dessert Worth Travelling For.

4. The Spirit of Van Pools, Wales While strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government, the Arthurian legend had this one covered, and then along came Wales’ tale of the spirit of Van Pools. The folklore goes that a spirit appears in a pool in

The folklore goes that a spirit appears in a pool in Wales on New Year’s Eve, which takes the form of a golden-haired maiden in a golden boat. One farmer had heard of the spirit’s beauty, and after desiring her to be his wife, he began making donations of bread and cheese to the lake. Finally, one New Year’s Eve, after giving the lake his best cheese and seven loaves of bread, the spirit appeared to wed him, bringing with her a dowry of cattle. However, she warned him if he struck her three times, she would leave him. The story is that at a baby’s birth, the spirit cried, making the husband angrily ask why she was making a fool of herself, to which she replied that the child was being born into a world of sin and wickedness, and the husband “pushed” her. At the child’s death, she laughed, saying it had left a world of hurt to be happy and good forever, and the husband again pushed her. At the marriage of a young woman to an old man, the spirit cried, saying the compact was made for gold and would result in misery. The husband pushed her for a third time, and she left him, taking her dowry of livestock with her, and the husband never saw her again.

Other versions have it that the spirit is an elf whose father bids the husband that she must never be touched with iron, least she be returned to her own and never allowed to walk on earth with her husband again. She accidentally bumps into iron on her horse’s stirrup one day and is spirited back to her father’s house, but comes up with a plan to still see her husband, which involves floating turf on a lake, upon which they both meet to converse until his death, W. Sikes writes.

For more tales about Wales, including just where Merlin is trapped until the end of time, you can check out 5 Tourist Sights and the Legends Behind Them.

5. Namahage, Japan Oga City in the Akita Prefecture plays host to a group of Namahage every New Year’s Eve. These demons, or oni, are really two or three village youths dressed in demonic masks and straw outfits, who go around the village holding wooden knives and visiting houses to ask whether any children are disobeying their parents or anyone is being lazy. Apparently, the practice stems from a legend that the Chinese Han Emperor brought five oni with him to Japan about 2,000 years ago. The oni stole crops and kidnapped people from Oga, so the villagers decided to trick them by challenging the oni to build 1,000 stone steps by dawn. If they succeeded, they could have all the young women in town (so much for female emancipation!) If they failed, the oni would have to leave and never return. The demons reached 999 stairs when a villager imitated a rooster crowing, and the oni fled in dismay.

For the story behind how Japan got the name ‘The Land of the Rising Sun’, readers can check out How These Famous Places Got Their Nicknames.

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