Ringing in the New Year

Don Haupt/Flickr

Don Haupt/Flickr

We’re about to celebrate a brand new year, one bearing fresh hopes for personal betterment, social good and global harmony — if that isn’t too much to ask.

For much of human history, the new year was celebrated as spring ushered in a new cycle of reawakening in the natural world. Makes sense to me. But men are tinkerers, and it was the Romans who declared by fiat that January first would be the day a new year arrived.

Julius Caesar — that busy, busy man — established the calendar we pretty much follow today in 46 B.C. There was one hitch in imposing his Julian calendar. In order to synchronize his scheme with the solar year, Caesar was compelled to allow the old year to drag on for 445 days. It was a very long year.

The Julian calendar put the start of the year immediately after the winter solstice holidays of Saturnalia, when an excess of feasting and merriment was expected. Then as now, the post-party purge and the vows to lead a cleaner, leaner life followed an all but universal binge.

The ancient Greeks were no slouches, either. They were the first (in 600 B.C.) to use a baby to symbolize the new year. Of course, the baby was paraded around in a basket while the people celebrated Dionysius, god of wine and good times, with strong drink and general rowdiness.

It’s not surprising, really, that the early Christian church condemned New Year’s revels as lamentably sinful and opposed any such pagan festivities straight through the Middle Ages. New Year’s celebrations as we know them in the West have only come into vogue in the past 400 years.

Certain themes surface again and again in the quest to properly see out the old and ring in the new. It can’t hurt to do something to summon good luck, in my opinion.

First, the old year, often depicted as an aged, bearded man must be sent packing. Loud noise — pot banging, bell ringing, fireworks — is one way to chase away the spent year and its disappointments. Burning, drowning or burying an effigy also works if you go in for that sort of thing.

Rochelle Hartman/Flickr

Rochelle Hartman/Flickr

This year watch some of the more elaborate skits put on by crews in the Mummers Day parade. I do believe you will see this idea played out in St. George vanquishing the dragon, forces of light winning over forces of darkness and straw men chased from the streets.

The other big parade is the Tournament of Roses, launched in 1890 to celebrate the California orange harvest. Here’s something I didn’t know: in the early 1900s, the day’s festivities included Roman-style chariot races, a pure throwback to days of old.

New Year’s purification rituals can also involve water, as is done in Puerto Rico. A bucket of water set in the corner of the room absorbs the evil influences of the year past, capturing them in one convenient place. Immediately after midnight, you dash the water on your doorstep, cleansing it for the brand new year. Here in the north, beware of creating an ice hazard, which wouldn’t be lucky at all.

You should, of course, see in the New Year with close friends and family to get things off to a good start. Any gathering requires food, and certain dishes are thought to bring good luck.

In Holland it’s donuts, a round of dough symbolizing that one has come full circle. In Spain, it’s 12 grapes, popped in the mouth as the clock strikes midnight. In the American South, it’s black-eyed peas and greens; in Pennsylvania German country it’s pork and sauerkraut. Frankly, I prefer champagne and pate, although some may find that entirely too French.

In the British Isles, the first guest to enter the house after midnight is crucial — “first footing,” it’s called. The visitor is ideally a tall, dark and handsome man (yes!) bearing a piece of coal, a loaf of bread, a bit of money and a sprig of evergreens. This will keep everyone warm, fed, in the chips and headed for a long life. The first guest should carry away a pan of ashes, purging the house of the old, played-out year.

If you have cows around, try a medieval notion. Farmers would put a flat cake on the horns of every beast, then sing songs until the cake was cast to the ground by the cattle, in impatience with human foolishness or as an act of music criticism. If the cake falls in front of the cow, it’s good luck; if it’s tossed behind, expect trouble.

When the guests leave and the house lies in post-party shambles, it’s probably time to sober up and make some New Year’s resolutions. I’d hold off on this until the hangover subsides, or you may find yourself vowing never to celebrate quite so vigorously again. In the long-range scheme of things, this would be a shame — and possibly unlucky.

In the end, I can only offer the family motto: All things in moderation, including moderation. Have a good one!