How different cultures celebrate New Year

As you read this, the New Year will have arrived.  At the stroke of midnight on the 31 December, fireworks will have lit up significant places in cities all over the world like a domino effect as the New Year is welcomed across the world as many will have ushered in 2020.  New Years resolutions have been made (and may have also have been broken by now).

New Year’s Day is a public holiday in most countries marking the first day of a new year.  It represents the start of a new period of time that also gives us time to pause for reflection, and to look forward to a new season.

Celebrations and traditions are an important part of each society and culture.  They bring together what is common in a country, social group to create a sense of belonging and identity.  Some festivals have religious origins, others seasonal.  How each culture celebrates festivals, special occasions and the traditions that take place often reflect the history, values and worldview of this culture or society.  As we celebrate the New Year in 2020 all over the world, there is a common theme of celebrating what 2019 was, recognising all the good as well as bad that took place BUT it is also a time to bring 2019 to a close, with hope, anticipation of what the New Year, and new decade 2020 may bring.

Many welcome in the new year with family, close friends in different ways.  In New Zealand, there will be public concerts, countdowns and fireworks in the large cities, and on some of the East Coast beaches and campsites.   There will also be gatherings among family and friends.  In other parts of the world, regional celebrations such as Hogmanay, or the Scottish celebration of New Year’s eve involves many traditions such as feasting, dancing and singing “Auld Lang Syne” at the stroke of midnight.  The Welsh celebrate Calennig that means “New Year Celebration/gift”.  Whilst in the West many celebrate the New Year on the 1st of January with parties and countdowns, New Year celebrations are different in other cultures and countries.  Japan celebrates 正月 Shōgatsu on the 1st of January.   At the stroke on midnight, Buddhist temples in Japan ring their bells 108 times.  Many dress in their traditional Kimono dress and visit the temple on New Year’s Day.   Other traditions in other countries include parades, football games, or celebrating Mass on the 1st of January.    

Other cultures also celebrate the New Year, but not necessarily on January the 1st.  Some like the Chinese, Korean, Cambodia, Thai and Vietnamese follow the lunar calendar and therefore celebrate the Lunar New Year at a different time of the year.  Malayam, Sinhalese, Tamil New Years also happen each year but at different times.  Each celebration is an important religious and/or social gathering with traditions and feasts that bring family, friends and a community together.  How each culture celebrates New Year reflects the values, beliefs and traditions of that culture.  There is diversity in why, when and how we celebrate New Year.  It reflects the rich cultural diversity of our world, and the growing diversity in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

To foster inclusion and belonging in any organisation, community and society, acknowledging and celebrating the many diverse cultural celebrations of our staff and clients is a significant way to demonstrate the importance of the relationship.   Celebrations and festivals can be great opportunities for everyone to grow interest, knowledge and understanding of one another culture’s traditions, practices and beliefs.  It can also provide an opportunity for those for whom the celebration is significant, to share why.  Conversely, knowing a little about these festivals can also ensure that traditions and practices that are important to others can be respected.  We can also reduce the potential of offending or saying the wrong thing.

As New Zealand grows more super-diverse, many of these festivals and celebrations will become important to know and understand.  There are social implications and practical implications for communities, businesses and organisations to consider.  Whilst the 1st and 2nd January is a public holiday in New Zealand, other celebrations of New Year’s such as Diwali and Chinese New Year are normal work days.

In your organisations and businesses, what would embracing the different significant holidays festivals for your staff that celebrate those days look like?  Is your first response to consider disruption this may cause in your business or the financial cost of giving staff so many “holidays”?   Are there other ways of showing each of these diverse employees that you respect and value them by learning more about how they celebrate, or create opportunities to celebrate together?  It may not be realistic and practical to allow employees that celebrate different significant festivals to have that day off.  For some such as the Chinese, the celebrations last fifteen days.  Finding other ways to celebrate with staff, clients and customers for whom these celebrations are a significant part of their culture can demonstrate our individual and organisational cultural intelligence.

Larger organisations such as ANZ Bank have organised Chinese New Year and Diwali celebrations for their Chinese and India clients (and Kiwi clients too) and created specific opportunities for their staff to also celebrate these occasions.  Another small business I know gave their Muslim staff a half day off to prepare the food for the celebration of Eid.

Every leader and manager of a diverse workforce needs to grow and develop their cultural knowledge of such cultural festivals, traditions and practices of the staff that they manage.  It is an opportunity to know more about the worldview and values of their staff, and grow awareness and understanding of the individuals in their team.  As celebrations usually involve food and gathering together, this can be a positive and team building experience.   Asking questions and inviting those whom these celebrations are important to share can be a rich experience of learning from one another.  As a leader, creating these opportunities will develop trust and respect in your team and also clients.

Any celebration is also good for business.  It often involves feasting and gift-giving.   If your business or industry can benefit from celebrations, it is important to grow your cultural knowledge about traditions, food, and what happens in each of these New Year celebrations.  It can attract a different customer segment.

Developing your cultural knowledge and understanding of how different cultures celebrate New Year and other festivals can benefit you, all those whom you manage from diverse backgrounds and clients whom you do business with.  As 2020 begins, make every opportunity to ask, learn from others and to develop and grow your cultural intelligence.

Shireen Chua

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