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New Year Traditions

Author: Janice Van Cleve
Posted: January 6th. 2008
Times Viewed: 3,549

Happy New Year! At twelve midnight Eastern Time, the ball dropped in New York’s Times Square. At twelve midnight Pacific Time, the Seattle Space Needle exploded in colorful fireworks. In Philadelphia, Mummers in lavish costumes paraded down the city’s streets, while in Pasadena, college football teams vied for the Rose Bowl cup.

Unfortunately in the United States drunken parties – sadly too often followed by DUI arrests or even tragedy, often mark the turning of the calendar year. However, many folks turn to cooking instead of alcohol to mark the occasion.

In the southern states, eating black-eyed peas and hog jowls or ham is a good luck tradition. Cabbage, too, is said to symbolize money and therefore prosperity. Kissing strangers and friends is also traditional at the stroke of midnight in the United States but in Switzerland they kiss everybody three times and exchange hugs all around.

All over the world as December 31st clicks over into January 1st, people celebrate the arrival of the new year in different ways. In Holland, donuts are a traditional food on New Year’s Day as they symbolize the unending circle of the year.

The Dutch also burn their Christmas trees on this day and launch fire works. In Spain and Mexico, people eat twelve grapes at midnight in a ritual meant to secure good luck for the next twelve months.

Greeks celebrate the feast of St. Basil on January 1st. One of their practices is to bake a cake called Vassilopitta. A silver or gold coin is baked inside the cake and whoever finds it will have good luck for the coming year.

Danes break old dishes on the doorsteps of their friends on New Years night. Many broken dishes at your front door are a symbol that you have many friends.

The French, according to a local French chef speaking on KUOW this week, start a leisurely gourmet dinner around 8:00 pm and don’t finish until midnight.

Gotta love those French!

New Years is the most important holiday in Japan as it symbolizes renewal. “Forget-the-past-year” parties, called bonenkai, bid farewell to the problems and concerns of the past year. Grudges are forgiven and misunderstandings are healed.

In Buddhist temples, the gongs are struck 108 times to expel the 108 types of human weakness.

Many Japanese send postcards for New Years. Ecuadorians forget the past year by making a small scarecrow stuffed with newspapers and firecrackers. At midnight, the family lights the dummy to blow up the past.

In Scotland it is believed that the first person to cross the threshold on January 1st and who brings a lump of coal for the fire or shortbread for the table signals good luck to the house. The song “Auld Lang Syne” – meaning “old long since” or “times gone by” comes from Scotland. Its verses lament the drifting away of old friends and promises to maintain better connection in the coming year.

Bandleader Guy Lombardo first popularized this song at a New Year’s Eve party in the Roosevelt Hotel in New York in 1929, just after the stock market crash. It is still today sung at New Year’s midnight in bars and at parties across the USA.

Company bosses in Taiwan host a big meal on New Years Eve and a lottery in which everybody wins at least $50 and may even win a Mercedes! But not all are lucky. After the boss gives his speech, he spins a lazy susan in the center of the table to indicate the feast may begin. On the lazy susan is a whole roast chicken complete with head. If the head stops at your plate, you will be fired after Chinese New Year.

The date when the new year begins is not the same the world over. Muslims use a different calendar than in the West and generally mark the day more quietly. Egyptians await the appearance of Sirius, the Dog Star, in the heavens or the new crescent moon. Iranians celebrate the new year on the first day of spring and decorate their homes with wheat, barley, and lentils.

These are kept for thirteen days, and then thrown into the nearest river. Punjabis in Pakistan celebrate on the thirteenth of April wearing new clothes and turbans. Unfortunately this year with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, there will be little to celebrate in that country.

The timing of the Muslim new year most closely follows its historical origins. The holiday began in ancient Babylon over 4000 years ago. Babylonians began their new year with the appearance of the first new moon after the vernal equinox, which corresponds to the Jewish Passover and the Christian Easter.

It was the Roman Senate in 153 BCE that first declared January 1st to be the beginning of the new year. This was a completely arbitrary assignment that was tampered with repeatedly until 46 BCE when Julius Caesar re-declared it for January 1. To synchronize the calendar with the sun, it is said he had to let the previous year drag on for 445 days! You can do that if you are a Roman dictator!

The Christian church opposed the celebration of the new year because it was considered a pagan practice. However, like many pagan practices, it persisted, and so the church finally adopted it as a feast day around 1600 CE. At Vatican II, the Catholic Church abandoned the feast day, and so it remains today a purely secular (can we say “pagan”?) holiday.

The Babylonians also started the practice of making new years resolutions. One of the most common was to return tools borrowed over the past year. In America, new years resolutions often take the form of the negative: quite smoking, quit drinking, lose weight, get organized, etc. These resolutions usually last a week, if that. Jennifer Vanasco, a syndicated columnist, recently encouraged more positive resolutions that we really want to do like take that trip we’ve always wanted or learning to dance or a new language.

I don’t go to parties on New Year’s Eve anymore. I can see the Seattle Space Needle from my bedroom window. I pour a glass of scotch, snuggle into bed, and read a book. At the stroke of midnight when the Needle erupts in fireworks, I toast all those brave souls standing out in the cold and rain, then turn off the light and go to sleep. My own unique New Year’s tradition actually begins the next morning.

Early on the first day of the new year, when the sky is still dark, I get up and throw on my clothes. With the faintest light just beginning to appear over the Cascade Mountains to the east, I walk to the biggest body of water I can conveniently reach, which these days is Lake Washington.

There on the pier at the end of Madison Avenue I can watch the dawning of the new day. (Little did I know, but the Koreans do this as well.) Then I pray to the ancient spirits of this land – the spirits of the Samish peoples: Makah, Quileute, Stillaquamish, Muckleshoot, Lummi, S’Klallum, Duwamish, Tualip, Suquamish, Puyallup, Quinault, and many others.

This was their land before we invaded it. This was the home of their ancestors and their gods. As a visitor, I offer homage and respect to these spirits: raven and whale, mighty volcano and lashing wind, salmon and Earth Mother.

I cast a stone that has graced my altar and received my prayers into the water. When the ripples have ceased, I turn and walk along the beach to see if a new stone will call me to take it home.

In this way I renew my proper place in resonance with the native order that preceded me here and which still whispers on the passing breeze, laps at the water’s edge, and lives in the rooted soil.

At home the new stone goes onto my altar. Then I shower, welcome the stone in ritual, and make my breakfast. That’s about the time it starts raining again.

After all, whether native or invader, we all get wet here in Seattle!

Janice Van Cleve arrived in Seattle in August 1967 and loved this place so much she settled here . . . by leave of the spirits whose home this is. Copyright 2007.


Janice Van Cleve

Location: Seattle, Washington

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