Latin America readies for 2015 with coloured undies, potatoes

BOGOTA (AFP) - Put on your yellow underwear, toss your potatoes under the bed and grab your suitcase for a walk around the block: the clock is about to strike midnight on New Year's Eve in Latin America.

From the northern deserts of Mexico to the southern glaciers of Patagonia, the region has a host of colorful New Year's traditions and superstitions, some of them holdovers from colonial times, some homegrown and some blending cultures and customs in Latin Americans' unique style.

In many countries, revelers ring in the new year by walking around the neighbourhood with a suitcase, a ritual that is meant to guarantee a year of journeys.

"In 2012, I ran around carrying my suitcases and I ended up travelling to Europe. I did the same in 2013 and I went to Argentina. So I'm definitely doing it again this year," said Carla Romero, a communications specialist in the Ecuadoran capital Quito.

Other Latin Americans sweep the floor or clean house to get rid of bad vibes. In Mexico, the custom includes washing the doorstep.

In much of the region, revelers eat 12 grapes, cramming one in with each toll of the clock at midnight - a ritual inherited from Spain.

The grapes must be divided into six red and six white, according to some keepers of the tradition.

"In my family, we put them in little packets so everyone can make their wishes," said Ms Tatiana Ariza, a Colombian housewife.

The wishes must be kept strictly secret "or they won't come true," she added.

In Cuba, which had to give up on grapes during a period of severe shortages, people throw buckets of water out their windows to wash away evil - a ritual also followed in Uruguay, which like the communist island usually has hot weather this time of year.

Other people put money in their shoes or tie three Chinese coins together with a red ribbon to ensure a prosperous year.

For New Year's decor, many place stalks of wheat, a symbol of prosperity, alongside images of angels or the Virgin Mary.

"Changing seasons requires rites. From Central America to Patagonia, these rites to mark the end of the year are inherited from pagan traditions, from Ancient Rome, from the Egyptians, combined with indigenous American traditions and African culture," said Mr Fabian Sanabria, head of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History.

Though the rise of secularism has weakened the hold of ritual on people's lives, the uncertainties of today's world have left more individuals from all social classes grasping for the comfort of superstition.

"It's the zenith of astrologers and horoscopes," Mr Sanabria told AFP.

After noticing the abundance of New Year's traditions, Colombian entrepreneur Santiago Delgado decided to round up seven of them in an "Omen Box," which he sells for $13.

The box includes materials to carry out regional rituals, plus a copy of Psalm 91, a biblical passage traditionally read on New Year's Day.

He has sold some 2,000 of them this month.

Other ingredients are easily found at the supermarket, from lentils to put in your pocket to potatoes to place under the bed.

"I usually have three potatoes: one I peel completely, one I peel a little bit and another one I leave the skin on," said Mr Victor Carreno, a Colombian shopkeeper.

"I put them under the bed and at midnight I grab one at random. If I grab the one with the whole skin everything will go well for me. But if I grab the peeled one I'm going to have a tough year."

In Peru, women shoppers snap up New Year's underwear in yellow, a color associated with happiness and friendship.

In Uruguay and Argentina, the preferred color is pink, which is supposed to bring luck in love.

In Colombia, many women choose red, the color of passion.

The first bath of the year is another key rite.

In the Colombian capital Bogota, herb sellers at the Paloquemao market offer bitter- and sweet-smelling bundles to make a purifying bath.

Others use champagne.

Douse your body in bubbly and let it dry for a year full of happiness and success, they say.