We've just celebrated the New Year (at least according to the traditional Western calendar). It got me to thinking about New Year traditions.
The Chinese New Year, "Yuan Tan", is celebrated between January 21 and February 20. The exact date is fixed by the lunar calendar, in which a new moon marks the beginning of each new month.(2). This is a nine day celebration, with specific activities for each day, but it starts with cleaning the home to rid it of bad luck, before visiting and feasting relatives and friends, and enjoying parades and other spectacles in the streets (2). It is a time of reconciliation, when old grudges are cast aside. (2) It is been traditional to shoot off firecrackers "to route the forces of darkness". (1)
I really like the idea of reconciliation, and casting aside grudges. Who needs to haul grudges around year after year?
For the Bahai, and for Iranians, the New Year is celebrated with the Spring Equinox.(4) Their celebrations begin precisely at the time of the Equinox; in each town a cannon is fired at the right moment, and the people do not begin their celebrations until they hear it. As with the Chinese and others, they prepare for the new year by cleaning their homes and preparing new clothes to wear for the first day of the new year. They celebrate with a special feast table, upon which seven specific items much be laid. They decorate with grains, wheat, barley or lentils to symbolize prosperity. And they exchange eggs as gifts, to symbolize new beginnings.(4)
For the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), which is celebrated on the first two days of the seventh lunar month (yes, they have a different calendar).(2) Rosh Hashana is a time for personal introspection and prayer. (1) It is a time when "all people must account to God for their behavior during the past year." People have ten days before Rosh Hashana to atone for any wrongs they may have done (by doing good deeds, and thinking about how to live a better life.(3) Some think of this as a time when you make things right with the people in your life, so that on the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, you can make things right with God. "If they are sincere, God was supposed to forgive them and on Yom Kippur he sets down and foretells each person's fate for the next year in the book. He will write them down for a good year."(3)
Again, I like this idea -- check in with yourself; have you wronged someone in the past year? Seek them out, apologize, make amends. Be good with the people in your life.
The Celtic New Year (Samhain, or Hallowe'en), is celebrated at the end of October. It is the time to bring in the cattle, and to take stock of the stores for winter. It is also a time when many believe that the "veil between the worlds" is at its thinnest, and thus when you can connect with your ancestors. Many hold a "Dumb Supper", at which an extra place is set for benevolent ancestors. During the dinner, people are silent (or in other traditions, tales are told), remembering those who have died, particularly in the past year, but also all ancestors, and recalling the lessons they've learned from those ancestors. Ancestors were said to be able to return to bestow blessings on this night.
I like this one too. Look back, acknowledge your past, and your ancestry. See your own place in the story of your family. then look forward -- take the lessons of your ancestors into your future.
The Celtic traditions, like many others, also included forms of divination (typically to see who would be wed and to whom in the coming year.) While many traditions include looking forward to see what would happen, others included planning ahead to choose what would happen in the new year. The tradition of making New Year's resolutions is said to have begun as long ago as 2600 B.C. in Babylon; it is another way to reflect on the past and plan ahead. (1)
"In Wales,at the first stroke of midnight, the back door is opened and then shut to release the old year and lock out all of its bad luck. Once the clock strikes 12, the front door is opened and the New Year is welcomed with all of its luck." (5).
And many traditions suggest that you do at the new year what you'd like to be doing for the year, as though what you do on that day upon which the new year starts will guide what happens for the rest of the year. Some are a bit ... silly? In Ecuador, the color underwear you wear indicates what you hope to get in the coming year (red for love, yellow for money).
In Scotland, and indeed across the British Isles they have a custom of "first-footing". According to this tradition, "the first foot to cross a threshold after midnight will predict the next year's fortune. Although the tradition varies, those deemed especially fortunate as "first footers" are new brides, new mothers, those who are tall and dark (and handsome?) or anyone born on January 1." (1)
Various cultural traditions include eating, or doing, specific things to bring good luck and/or prosperity for the new year. For example in the Southern U.S., folks eat black eyed peas for good luck (some also eat pork for the same reason).(1)The Dutch (and others) eat ring shaped foods to symbolize "coming full circle"; doing so is supposed to lead to good fortune. In Dutch homes, fritters called olie bollen are served,(1) but regular old donuts will also work (as, I suppose, would LifeSavers).
Why is it then, that so many Americans (and likely folks in other countries, but I don't have useful knowledge on that front), celebrate the new year by drinking out the old year, and waking to the new year with a hangover? It seems an inauspicious way to start the year -- what with the headache and the dehydration and the possible vomiting that tends to come with the over indulgence that seems to have become a tradition.
Sure, many traditions include a toast to the new year -- with mulled wine, or mulled hard cider, or wassail (all keeping you warm through the darkest months), or with bubbly (I like to think that the bubbles represent new prosperity bubbling up). But it is no longer just a toast. People plan ahead, knowing that they'll be too intoxicated to drive home, so they go to parties in hotels, where they'll only have to stagger to their rooms. Or they arrange for taxis. But regardless, so very many of us seem to celebrate by drinking so much on New Years Eve that we're not at all sober when the Ball drops in Times Square.
Perhaps it is left over from the Saturnalia celebrations of the Greco-Roman era. Saturnalia was a celebration that included role reversals and a sort of license to behave contrary to the normal mores: masters served their servants or slaves, and the slave were allowed a time of a pretense of disrespect for their masters.(6) Over time, those celebrations included a certain amount of debauchery.
While this year, I wholly enjoyed a traditional American celebration (a wonderful party at the home of friends, followed by another wonderful brunch at the home of other friends (we'll discount that they were related, though that made it special for me), I'd like to plan ahead better for next year. To choose New Year celebrations that have meaning. (With a little planning, I can add to that clean out the old year's yuck to make room for the new year's luck).
I do enjoy the idea of resolutions: plans for the coming year. Here's a few for me:
1) Plan ahead. I will try this year to look forward to the various events and holidays, to have our activities by choice and not default.
2) Let go of the need to control: as with my promise not to box myself in to doing it all at the Holidays, I'm going to try to use that planning ahead stuff to identify what needs to be/ought to be/could be done, and share the joy of the doing.
3) Keep learning, and growing.
Here's to a new year of happiness, prosperity, comfort, health, friendship, and understanding.
May yours be wonderful!