Friday, December 31, 2010

New Years Customs

(News-Herald, December 30) Time for the finale of the holiday trifecta. We’ve had our day of enforced family togetherness and our day of enforced love and warmth for fellow humans, so now it’s time for the holiday of enforced merriment and partying good times.
Of course, just as Thanksgiving and Christmas are based on more substance than current custom might suggest, so does New Year’s have a history of being more than a mandate to drink deep from the pool of bad behavior.
Observing the start of a new year is almost as old as human history, though the ancients often had some arguments about when that first day fell. The current kickoff champ was only one of many contenders in the ancient world until Julius Caesar in 46 BC supposedly established the Julian calendar cementing January 1 as its starting date. (January was named for Janus, the god of doorways, entrances and beginnings. He was usually depicted with two faces, one looking forward and one backward.)
There have been a wide variety of New Year customs, some of which are still practiced and some of which have morphed into newer forms. The Scots give us two fine traditions. One is “Auld Lang Syne,” which was not actually written by the poet Robert Burns, but transcribed by him from its rendition by an old Scotsman. There are at least five verses, all of them fairly incomprehensible unless you have a hardy Scots-English dictionary, but all of which lament that time and distance now separate folks who were once close friends.
The Scots have also preserved First Footing, the notion that the first person to cross your threshold after midnight signals your luck (or lack thereof) for the coming year. There seem to be some differences of opinion about the details, but authorities agree that a tall, dark-haired man is the best sign for a fortunate new year. First foots should bring a practical gift such as coal or bread for the household. They may be actual members of the household, though they should still knock and be invited in.
John Wesley (founder of Methodism) liked the Moravian tradition of Watch Night and so appropriated it. These services start late at night and continue into the new year, giving thanks for the previous year and asking for more divine assistance in the year ahead.
Other traditions include letting nothing go out of the house on New Years Day—no deliveries, no presents carried out, not so much as taking out the garbage. This strikes me as a particularly tough regimen for folks with housepets; I guarantee you that the Labrador puppy that lives in my house will be taking something outside on January 1.
On the other hand, I can easily comply with the tradition that says no laundry must be done on New Years Day (apparently wash means that someone will die in the upcoming year).
Many traditions build on the notion that anything happening on January 1 will set a tone for the whole year. So crying, paying money to others, and breaking things are all to be avoided, lest you have a weepy year of broken poverty. On the other hand, some customs suggest that you succeed at a job related activity to guarantee a year of similar success. And obviously kissing someone pleasant and appealing makes a good trend-starter.
For the last century in Spain, folks eat twelve grapes at midnight, one on each chime, for each of the coming months. In many cultures hog is considered a sign of prosperity (as in “high on the”), so eating any forms of it is recommended. Black-eyed peas and cabbage should provide sufficient good luck for vegetarians. For people who want to be sure, I suspect that somewhere in Venangoland, pork and sauerkraut will be available, as well as grapes in one form or another.
Fireworks and noisemakers were intended to drive away evil spirits for the new year. Many cities have added modern touches, most famously in New York City, where thousands of tourists gather to watch the ball drop. I am told that this event is carefully avoided by all authentic New Yorkers, except for authentic New York pickpockets. And many American cities have embraced the notion of First Night as a means of creating memories one can share with his children instead of stories that need to be hidden from them.
Pick the custom you like. On a day for saluting the past and embracing the future, a buffet of traditions seems perfect. Just don’t mess with the Rose Parade.

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