Better Luck Next Time: New Year Superstitions
Wacky ways of wishing happy New Year around the world.
Sayonara, 2009. It's been a rough year to cap off a rough decade, so here's to better times ahead. But hoping that the next 365 goes better than the last is nothing new; cultures the world over have developed superstitions and good luck traditions to help ring the New Year in right.
The New Year celebration is one of the oldest of holidays, dating at least as far back as ancient Babylon. The specific date has been in flux over the millennia and across cultures, with celebrations coinciding with the planting of new crops, the vernal equinox, or religious observations. Our Gregorian New Year's Day, January 1, has no astronomical or agricultural significance, which leads one to wonder why we force ourselves outside at midnight on one of the coldest days of the year for no good reason. Somebody really dropped the ball on that one.
As we often do when holidays come around, we now look back and attempt to discover a little more about ourselves from the reasons why we put on the same show every year. By and large, these practices are all about ensuring good luck in the coming cycle, be it solar, lunar, social, or religious. Often the first instance of an event or action is thought to set the tone for the rest of the year, and great care is taken to ensure these go just right.
Let's start close to home, with the United States. Americans keep a strange batch of traditions, most borrowed or translated from other cultures. Common denominators include noisemakers and firecrackers, Dick Clark, counting down to midnight, and kissing. The kissing practice has several origin stories. Some suggest it stems from the ancient Roman Saturnalia festival, while others say it refers to a purification of evil spirits practiced at masked balls. It can simply show affection and commitment to loved ones in the coming year, or portend a year of great kisses. At any rate, it's a nice excuse.
Another tradition the U.S. shares with nearly every other English-speaking country is the singing of Auld Lang Syne, the famous 'song that nobody knows.' The tune is inextricably tied to new years, but it's rarely ever sung completely, and there's a reason. As written by Robert Burns in 1788 in his native Scottish dialect, this nostalgic number is nearly unintelligible past the first verse and chorus. Anyone recall verse three?
We twa hae run about the braes,
and pu'd the gowans fine ;
But we've wander'd mony a weary foot,
sin auld lang syne.
All due respect to Scotland's national poet, but for now we'll stick with the Harry and Sally summation - "Anyway, it's about old friends."
As Americans all come from different cultural backgrounds, other traditions may include any combination of these and other world practices :
The British keep the tradition of first footing, which seeks to garner luck by staging the first home visit of the New Year. A lucky first visitor should be male and bearing gifts such as coal for warmth, a loaf of bread for food, and drinks for those gathered. A variety of this is seen in "It's A Wonderful Life" when George Bailey holds a housewarming ceremony. The first footer should enter through the front door and leave through the back. Guests who are empty-handed should be turned away until an appropriate first footer arrives.
The Welsh open the back door of the house at the first toll of midnight to release the old year and its bad luck. At the twelfth stroke of the clock, the front door is opened to welcome the New Year and good luck.
In Denmark, New Year's means measuring popularity in pottery. The Danish save old dishes throughout the year and throw them at the doors of their friends' houses on New Year's Eve.
In Egypt the New Year begins when the new crescent moon is first seen. The official sighting is made from the Muhammad Ali mosque and is proclaimed by the Grand Mufti before festivities can begin.
German tradition holds that molten lead poured into cold water on New Year's will foretell the future. Ring shapes indicate a wedding, and a pig a well-fed year to come. In addition, hunger may be staved off in the New Year by leaving leftovers on the plate until after midnight.
Other cultures make a point of eating specific lucky foods. Lasagna means buona fortuna for Sicilians at the New Year, and lentil soup brings boa sorte in Brazil. The Spanish eat 12 grapes at midnight for good luck in each month of the next year.
Some New Year's recipes include some more unusual ingredients. Norwegians make rice pudding with a single whole almond hidden inside, which will bring good luck to the one who finds it in their dish. In Greece, a coin is baked into a special New Year's loaf of bread. The first two slices are for the Christ child and the father of the house, but if the third slice holds the coin, the New Year will bring an early spring.
So whatever you need to do to convince that New Year's baby to behave himself, go for it. Whether you borrow one of these traditions, keep up your own, or start something new, may the New Year find you happy, healthy, and lucky too.