Singing funny songs, eating interesting foods, kissing strangers…
These wacky (funny and interesting) traditions can only mean one thing:
It is time for New Year’s!
New Year’s is a time when we come together to celebrate, to reflect and to look towards the future.
It is no surprise that New Year’s involves a lot of specific and interesting vocabulary.
This vocabulary is very important when learning about English culture, and it helps you sound more like a native speaker. Think about it: New Year’s is a holiday that is celebrated all around the world!
The vocab we are going to talk about in this post is party vocabulary that is specific to the celebration of the new year. We are also going to look at some traditions and activities that people do around the English-speaking world at this time of year.
And now, without further delay, raise a glass as we toast to all the weird and wonderful New Year’s traditions and vocabulary!
5 Common New Year’s Traditions
Traditions are behaviors or activities that have been passed down from generation to generation. They can be between a family, an entire community or even a country!
Passed down is a phrasal verb referring to the giving of something to somebody younger or less experienced than you. When we talk about beliefs or behaviors, we say they have been passed down, and the tradition or behavior is then repeated or continued.
For example, imagine an important piece of jewelry, like a watch, that has been passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter.
A tradition can also be an action or event.
We always eat noodles on New Year’s Eve. It was a tradition that was passed down from my great-grandfather!
But before we enter the new year, let’s put a little bit of holiday spirit in each of us with this awesome video from FluentU English:
Before 2021 comes, subscribe to FluentU’s English YouTube channel so you can start the year off right.
Here are some popular New Year’s traditions in English-speaking countries.
1. Counting down to the new year
The New Year’s countdown is when people count backward from a number (usually 10) to mark the start of the new year. That being said, a countdown can be used to mark the beginning of any event.
To count down is a phrasal verb to signify the action of a countdown, which is a noun.
Take a look at the example below.
We all counted down from 10 with a special New Year’s countdown.
Either way, it is one of the most common New Year’s traditions.
2. Watching the ball drop in Times Square
Major cities across the globe all have particular New Year’s celebrations. For example, in Sydney, Australia, you will see a stunning (beautiful) fireworks display from the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
One of the most famous New Year’s traditions is the ball drop in Times Square, New York. It is believed that a ball drop is an old tradition that came from sailors!
On top of the Times Tower in Times Square, a giant ball drops down a pole to signify the new year. It is estimated that more than one billion people, both virtually and in-person, watch this event. The ball drops after a countdown to the new year.
If you have not seen it before, start by checking out this video of the 2019 ball drop:
Be careful not to confuse the phrase “ball drop” with another one: “dropping the ball.”
If you say “to drop the ball,” you will be using a phrasal verb that means to make an error or mistake on a big scale!
3. Kissing at midnight
Kissing on New Year’s Eve is a superstition in English. A superstition is a type of belief that is not scientific and that is often irrational. For example, there is a superstition that if you walk under an upright ladder, then you will have bad luck.
Superstitions can also bring good luck as well. This is the case with the New Year’s kiss.
If you kiss your loved one, or sometimes anyone, at midnight, the moment that the new year begins, then you will receive good luck in love, dating and romance.
But, if you cannot find anyone to kiss, then, well, you guessed it, the opposite happens. You will be unlucky in love for the year!
This practice is a little outdated, meaning old or traditional. Take a look at some creative alternatives that people have come up with recently.
4. Singing (or trying to sing) “Auld Lang Syne”
“Auld lang syne” means “old long since” in English. The poem was written in the Scottish language known as Scots.
Because of this, many English speakers will try to sing the song “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s and only manage the first line before mumbling the rest!
The opening line, “Should auld [old] acquaintances be forgot?” is a question to the reader or listener.
An acquaintance is a person that you somewhat know. However, at the time when the poem was written, it more likely referred to a friend.
You might also notice that, in modern English, we would ask, “Should old friends be forgotten?” We would use “forgotten” rather than “forgot.”
The answer to this question is, of course, that old friends should not be forgotten!
5. Attending a fire festival in the U.K.
Maybe you have noticed that there are some similarities between the New Year’s traditions. Many of them have very old histories.
Fire festivals are often associated with the idea of cleansing, or making something clean. In this case, fire festivals are used to get rid of bad or old spirits from the previous year. We are cleansed from them with the smoke of a fire.
Check out this clip of Up Helly Aa, which is a traditional New Year’s fire festival. Did I mention that it includes Vikings!?
Wondering how you can practice this list of fun vocab words and phrases?
Try hearing them used in authentic contexts by native speakers! You can easily do this by watching real-world videos, like the ones on the FluentU app.
You can use the interactive captions to click on any word to see its definition, hear it used in example sentences and watch it being used in other authentic videos.
You can also add vocabulary words and phrases—like New Year’s vocab!—to flashcards and then practice them with fun quizzes!
And now, for the top New Year’s words and phrases in English…
1. New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Eve is on the 31st of December. We use the word eve to refer to the day or night immediately before an expected event. It comes from the word evening.
For example, we also say Christmas Eve, which is on the 24th of December.
New Year’s Eve is when people gather to drink, eat and celebrate the year that has passed and the year that is to come! It is a very special event on the calendar.
As you already know, it is also when people will count down to the new year.
2. New Year’s Day
New Year’s Day is on the 1st of January. It is considered a holiday in many English-speaking countries. Many people will stay awake until midnight on New Year’s Eve so that they can celebrate New Year’s Day from the very beginning.
3. A glass of bubbly
A glass of bubbly refers to a glass of Champagne. It is very common to drink Champagne when celebrating, and you will see many people drinking Champagne during their New Year’s celebrations.
“Bubbly” is slang, or informal language, for Champagne. It comes from the way that Champagne bubbles in the glass.
Shall we buy a nice bottle of bubbly for the New Year’s party?
I think so! After all, it is a celebration.
4. To toast/a toast
A toast is a kind of salute or a way to recognize something or somebody. It is where a group of people raise their glasses to celebrate a special occasion. It is usually accompanied by a speech. Somebody will say a few words about the event, and then everybody will raise their glass in the air and take a sip of their beverage.
A toast is often accompanied by the verbs make or give.
I would like to make a toast to the new year.
I would like to give a toast to my friends, who have helped me throughout the year.
You can also use “to toast” as a verb.
I am going to toast your health at dinner.
Check out these tips for making a good toast:
Fireworks are small explosives launched into the air to create a beautiful effect in the sky. They are usually launched at nighttime and are almost always related to a celebration. They are often associated with events of a very large scale, meaning important or significant events, just like New Year’s!
6. A New Year’s resolution
A New Year’s resolution is a promise that you make to yourself. It is a decision to commit to something or to stop a particular habit or behavior next year.
It is a common practice for people to make resolutions for the new year.
Did you make any New Year’s resolutions this year?
Yes, I want to quit smoking. But you know what they say: New Year’s resolutions never last!
Confetti is a type of colored paper that has been cut into very small pieces. Confetti is thrown into the air to create a kind of explosion of color. You will notice that it is similar to the use of fireworks in this way. You can buy confetti to use in your home, or sometimes it is used in the streets during big celebrations.
When it falls, it is kind of like colorful rain!
8. Out with the old, in with the new
“Out with the old, in with the new” is an expression that is commonly used around the time of the new year. It is a phrase that means that you should look towards the future, or what is new, and forget about the past, or what is old.
In fact, check out this great video from BBC Learning English for a breakdown of how this common phrase is used:
The phrase does not have to refer to literal objects or physical things. It can be used metaphorically, which means that you can use it to describe bad habits or behaviors.
This year, I am going to focus on positive thinking and avoid negative thinking. It is out with the old thoughts and in with the new ones!
9. To dance the night away
“To dance the night away” is a popular English idiom. It means that you dance the entire evening. However, it can also be used to more generally mean that you were partying late into the night.
While it is a popular idiom to use on New Year’s Eve, it can be used to describe a fun time that you had during any night.
How was the party last night?
It was so great. We danced the night away!
10. To ring in the new year
“To ring in the new year” essentially means to celebrate the new year.
We might also say to mark the new year.
To mark the new year is to acknowledge the event with some form of celebration.
We are having dinner with friends and family to ring in the new year. We have found it to be the best way to mark the occasion.
11. A sparkler
A sparkler is a small firework. Usually, they are held in the hand and waved around. Sometimes, sparklers are also placed onto cakes or food when they are brought into the room. When they are lit, little sparks shoot off of the metal sticks.
Sparklers are very popular with small children, who like to wave them around in celebration at these big events.
12. To dress up for a party
“To dress up” is another phrasal verb that has two distinct meanings. The first means to wear your most formal, or fanciest, clothes. The second means to wear a costume for a party that has a theme.
Parties for the new year sometimes have a theme. For example, I could have a superhero party where people come dressed up as their favorite superhero character.
Did you know that Paul is having a superhero party for the new year? Who will you dress up as?
I was thinking I would dress up as Batman because he has always been my favorite superhero.
13. To throw a party
“To throw a party” is a very common English expression. It means to organize a party for your friends and family.
While not always, it is implied that the party will be in your home or place of residence.
I was thinking of throwing a party in my apartment to celebrate the new year.
Are you sure there is enough space?
If we keep it small, yes.
14. A hangover
A hangover is the result of a night of heavy drinking. A hangover includes a headache, as well as feelings of nausea and sickness, the following day. Due to the overconsumption of alcohol, one of the most common expressions used by English speakers on New Year’s Day is “I am nursing a hangover.” This means that you currently have a hangover and are trying to deal with it as best you can.
I have the worst hangover!
Well, I told you not to drink so much at the New Year’s party!
I will be nursing it all day!
15. To turn over a new leaf
“To turn over a new leaf” is another English idiom that is very commonly used around the new year. It means to change your behavior, or the way that you do things, for the better. While it can be used at any time of the year, it is commonly heard around the new year, as this is when people are making their New Year’s resolutions.
It is time to turn over a new leaf. This year, I am going to quit my job and find a better one.
Maybe kissing strangers and singing old Scottish poems is not what you have planned for your New Year’s celebration! But, at least you can ring in the new year with lots of new vocabulary and knowledge of English celebrations. Do not forget to make English fluency one of your New Year’s resolutions!
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