NOTE: This look at New Year’s traditions was first published in the Miami Herald in 2001.
New Year's is a silly holiday. A purely human construct, with no logical or astrological purpose, unlinked to any particular season, deity or civic imperative. Cobbled together by centuries of hopeful, superstitious, often greedy common folk, prelates and monarchs, it has evolved into a mishmash of rituals, traditions, drinking, gunfire and general mayhem. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
But how much sense does it make to declare a New Year in the dead of winter, months before the first precarious green shoots announce the return of light and life? In fact, the Babylonians, who invented the New Year 4,000 years ago, held it more logically in spring, on the first new moon after the vernal equinox.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
It wasn't until Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, fiddling with the calendar in 46 B.C., that January 1 was set as the start of the New Year. He named it after the deity Janus, called the “two-faced god” because he had one visage facing forward, one facing back. At first, this was a symbol of vigilance; these days it means deceit.
Over the eons, Earth's myriad cultures adopted New Year traditions — rituals to carry out or foods to consume to assure good luck in the coming year.
Food traditions developed around the things people like to eat anyway, so they became a good excuse for a party.
Today, African Americans eat black-eyed peas and rice; New Mexicans eat posole, a filling stew of hominy, green chiles, onions, carrots and sometimes pork and ham that goes back to the Pueblo, maybe even the Anasazi people; Cuban hosts hand guests bags of 12 grapes each to eat as the clock gongs the beats of midnight (hovering mamis cut their children's grapes in quarters to prevent choking); the Dutch eat doughnuts that symbolize "coming full circle" of the year; Scots eat haggis. On purpose.
"I remember growing up in Overtown; we had to have a pot of black-eyed peas on the stove on New Year's, " says Dorothy Field, of the Black Archives. "Rice was the starch and peas were the protein; it provided the staple meal in many communities, both in West Africa and when the slaves came to the southern states."
Many cultures eat greens — collards for some, cabbage for others — for good luck, possibly because green is the color of money, at least in America.
Americans also drink champagne. Lots of champagne.
Traditional year-end rituals also center around the quest for good karma:
▪ Cubans and other Hispanics open the front door at midnight and throw out a pail of water. The ideas is to wash awat all the bad things and start all over.
Some say the tradition has died out among many Cubans in the United States — especially those in freezing New Jersey. It's still popular in Cuba.
▪ For Jamaicans, the ritual involves opening two doors.
▪ Ecuadorans dispose of the previous year's ills by creating elaborate dummies of people who have plagued them — a creditor, maybe, or the town mayor — and torching them at midnight.
▪ In Great Britain and parts of the U.S. South, the “first footing” custom says the first male visitor to the house after midnight brings good luck but if that visitor is a blond, redhead or woman, bad luck is on the way.
▪ Scots greet midnight by firing guns into the air, an Anglo-Saxon custom that has been happily adopted by many cultures in the United States.
Gun-toters call it a tradition; cops call it a misdemeanor — even a crime if gravity happens and you hit somebody.
A few New Year's Eve traditions are religious. Throughout the United States, African-American churches hold “Watch Night” services awaiting the arrival of the New Year.
By the time New Year's Day rolls in, the most popular tradition is to make resolutions — usually to lose weight, quit smoking and/or exercise.
A nationwide survey said one-third of Americans make New Year resolutions, but only one-third of that one-third keep them for a year.
Probably the least successful resolution is to try to figure out the meaning of the traditional New Year's Eve song, Auld Lang Syne. And if you think its first verse is unintelligible, take a gander at the sixth:
And there's a hand my trusty fiere,
And gie's a hand o thine,
And we'll tak a right guid-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.
You can't argue with that.