Actually, its symbols and traditions are legion, so what follows is a quick look at a few that I find particularly appealing.
The Tray of Togetherness is one that seems to recommend itself at this moment in time. (Recent news items would suggest that it is particularly need at this hour.) It is Chinese (you might well think me to be on some sort of Chinese kick, but it has just happen ed this way) and consists of a tray with eight compartments, each one of which is filled with a special item of food. The trays are offered to guests who visit during the New Year (Geng Yin) festivities. For the Chinese, our year of 2010 (their year of the tiger) begins on he 14th of February.
Janus The two-faced Roman God had January 1st dedicated to him by the Romans, as with his two faces he could simultaneously look back into the past and on into the future. He was also known as The God of Beginnings and Endings.
Candles Very familiar symbols, almost omnipresent at Christmas and The New Year, symbolising the spreading of light and warmth, but also it was understood that the smoke would rise into heaven, thereby ensuring that God would answer prayers.
The Yule Log Symbolises the return of the light to conquer darkness. It should be burnt for one whole night, then smoulder for twelve days (one day for each month of the year) and then extinguished imperially. Nowhere can I find any guidance as to what would constitute an imperial extinguishing!
Plum Blossom. Chinese again! Symbolising courage and hope. The blossom bursts forth at the end of winter on what appear to be lifeless branches.
First Footing As a boy I always associated the new year with Scotland. We had Christmas as our big occasion and they had the New Year - and what was more, they knew what to do with it, unlike us. My dad was stationed at Morpeth, Northumberland, during the war and made friends with a Scottish family. At times he managed to spend New Year (Hogmanay - Hog-mah-nay - with them, and would tell me of their celebrations). First Footing involved visiting friends and neighbours carrying a lump of coal for their fire or - intriguing this, I always thought - some shortbread, in return for the traditional hospitality they would show to the visitor. It was considered lucky if the first visitor over your threshold was tall and dark.
Auld Lang Syne Really belongs in the above paragraph. An evergreen part of the Scottish Celebrations. Literal translation: Old Long Since. It has been dubbed the most popular song whose lyrics are known by nobody. Not popularised by Robbie Burns as most folk believe, but by the band leader Guy Lombardo.
I finish with three from abroad that have particularly endeared themselves to me.
Spain The tradition is to eat twelve grapes at midnight, one for each month of the new year - don't know why that specially appeals, but it does.
The Netherlands People here, burn their Christmas trees and let off fireworks - it's the burning of the trees that appeals.
Japan Oshogatsu Their New Year parties (Bonenkai) are in fact forget-the-old-year-parties. From a family dimension we have had a particularly forgettable year, so this one seems the one for us for this year at least.