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Tuesday, January 1, 2019

New Year, New World

New Year, New World

C.A. Asbrey

In the melting pot of the United States of America in the 19th century, people came from all over the world to build a new life, but they inevitably brought holiday traditions and customs with them. Many have been enthusiastically embraced, such as the German custom of Christmas trees, and the Celtic Halloween. Others have fallen into obscurity or have been subsumed into the mainstream. New Year has become something to be marked and celebrated across religious and cultural barriers.   

Rituals act as a buffer against anxiety and uncertainty. The depths of winter, the cold, and the darkness were all worrying times to our agrarian ancestors. They worried about the sun departing and never coming back again. New Year's, and other holiday rituals, are designed to ease those fears by making the world seem more predictable. They were a routine not to be broken as it ensured the earth would continue to deliver as it always had.
The Fire Walk, Stonehaven, Scotland
For people coming from Scotland, New Year was the huge celebration of the year. Christmas was something for the children to receive gifts and enjoy magical tales. It only became a public holiday in Scotland in 1958. Until then people went to work as though it was a normal day. For a genuine, full-bloodied knees-up which lasted for days, Hogmany was the festival which included all ages. 

The word the Scots use for New Year, Hogmany(pronounced Hog-man-ae), is a bit of a mystery. The old Scots language of Lallans is a mixture of Old French, Anglo-Saxon, and Gaelic. The word is thought to have first been used widely following Mary Queen of Scots' return to Scotland from France in 1561.  It may come from the French word 'hoginane' - meaning gala day. It could come from the Anglo-Saxon 'haleg monath' meaning holy month. It does seem unlikely, to me, that there's a holy connection, as there is little or no religious element to the festival. It seems to embody expansive pagan excesses and self-indulgence which rivals the bacchanalian fall of the Roman Empire.

It would be wrong to think it is all about alcohol though. There are very ancient roots to the festival which brought in the whole family and echo the ancient pre-Christian festival of Halloween, which was basically the Celtic New Year. The superstitions simply moved with the calendar. Bonfires would be lit, houses were scrupulously cleaned as every scrap of dirt was seen as bring bad luck in the year ahead. Traditionally, no alcohol was consumed until the bells at midnight, but from the point it flowed like water. A special meal was prepared for New Year's Day, and special food like Scotch Broth, Black Bun, Cranachan, and Tipsy Laird was prepared for sharing with anyone who came by.

As soon as midnight chimed the doors and windows would be thrown open to allow the New Year in, boats everywhere sounded their whistles, and church bells rang. People even banged pots and pans together. The idea of the noise was related to the pagan practice of using noise and fire to drive away evil spirits. People wished one another well with a kiss. It was unlucky to miss anyone. Songs were sung. Auld Lang Syne is a Scottish song written by Robert Burns in the 18th century, and it is still sung at New Year. It literally means, 'for old time's sake.'  People went from door to door to visit neighbours in a stream of open-house parties. The first person over the doorstep at the New Year, was seen as portentous. They have to be tall, dark and handsome - literally. I have seen fair-headed people denied access until someone suitable came along. It's thought that the tradition comes from a fear of Viking raiders as the Celts are often very dark, so the tall dark and handsome person at the door is more likely to be a friendly local than a marauding stranger. This first footing could go on for days on end. The first footer will be carrying a lump of coal, shortbread, salt, a black bun and a "wee dram" of whisky - all the essentials for a prosperous and happy year ahead.

New Year celebrations in England were a lot more sedate. It was traditionally a time for giving trinkets such as oranges studded with cloves, books, or cakes. Neighbors would visit one another and wassail. They'd gather at a house and sing traditional songs before receiving hospitality from the “wassail-bowl”. Landowners provided bowls of spiced ale to their household, each person sipping from it and toasting “was hael” or “to your health.” This tradition later changed, with the poor neighbors seeking “wassail” from their wealthier counterparts. As they’d drink, they’d become ever more profuse with their good wishes—to a degree comparable with the First Footing of Scotland.

We can see many of the traditions echoed in the New Year celebrations in the USA today. The countdowns to the threshold of midnight, the grabbing of the person next to you to kiss and hug are all still present. Kissing, originally came from the English tradition of "saining," or offering blessing or protection. Auld Lang Syne is still sung. 

Various Europeans  brought the tradition of eating pork and cabbage on New Year's Day, and many people still do this, particularly in New England. Many avoid chicken. Why? Because chickens scratch the earth backwards and it was seen as important to consume foods which only move forward such as fish or pork.   

The French gave us the habit of using champagne to celebrate. They perfected the already known technique of adding sugar to bottled wine to create a fizzy beverage thanks to the yeast in the wine, which consumed the sugar to produce carbon dioxide. The earliest recorded sparkling wine was produced by Benedictine Monks in 1531. After the French revolution, champagne was used as a secular replacement for wine used in religious ceremonies. It is from this root that we use champagne to launch a ship. Champagne was used instead of holy water and no priest, or their expensive stipend, was required. It became the must-have drink for any celebration.

An ancient wine producer's superstition is still with is in Italian and Hispanic communities. They kept back the last of the grapes to consume just before the New Year commenced to ensure luck in the next year and the continuation of their crop. The Portuguese eat raisons for the same reason.

Whether it's eating pork or leftover grapes, or visiting neighbors — a huge number of New Year's traditions are all about the money and fertility. Prosperity looms large, along with a fear that the next year will come with a downturn in fortunes. All of this echoes the Neolithic fear of the sun going away and never coming back.  

The Turks wear red underwear, run the faucet and sprinkle salt on their doorsteps to ensure prosperity and ward off evil. The Swiss will drop whipped cream to the floor and leave them there to usher in riches. Filipinos, meanwhile, will wear polka dots, because the rotund shape of the circles symbolizes prosperity. The Danish jump at midnight, off tables, chairs, and steps, to literally leap into the next year.

Underwear features for the Portuguese too. The underwear must be new but different colors will set the tone for the wearer throughout the year: blue for good luck and better communications with others; red for success in love. Brown is to improve one’s professional career, yellow for financial help, white for peace or non-material matters, and green for good health.

People in the south, meanwhile, eat black eyed peas, collard greens and cornbread because they resemble coins, dollar bills and shiny gold, respectively. A civil war legend declares that the peas kept people alive through the worst privations.   

The ball dropping in Times Square was based on the old sailors' use of a time balls to set their own timepieces. They would set these chronometers using a spyglass to scan the harbor for balls which were dropped into the water at certain times, The first time ball was installed in Portsmouth, England, made its first drop in 1829, and by 1845, Washington, D.C., had one too. The First Ball in Times Square was installed in 1904, but was not actually functional. The first dropping ball was used in 1907.

New Year's resolutions date from at least time of the ancient Mesopotamians. Citizens made spoken resolutions in March, during their New Year Festival, called Akitu. They were required to make an oath to the king, and were considered essential to keep the kingdom in the gods’ favor. This then transmitted through the ages to the Romans, and then to Christianity. 

The Chinese gave us fireworks, but were warmly embraced by Europeans to mark a special moment. They also come with the pagan connotation of using fire to cleanse and to use loud noises to drive away evil spirits. 

There are shades of all these traditions on the continent of America, North, South, East, and West. Each community has traditions which are shades of the people who first settled there. In some way, they are all still with us.           

A vacant-looking man with prominent yellow teeth walked into her field of vision, striding beyond the blinding sun and dragged her roughly from the horse. She had expected to be searched and had ruthlessly bound her body with bandages to try to flatten and conceal her breasts, but the man merely patted down her sides before turning his attentions to her jacket. He pulled out the pistol which had been loosely placed in her pocket and slapped his way down her legs. She was instantly glad she had foregone the Derringer she usually wore at her ankle. A concealed weapon was too risky.
“He’s clean.”
“Well, boy. It seems like you’re gonna get your wish, but if you’ve been messin’ with us and you ain’t Quinn’s kin, you’re gonna regret it. He don’t like to be messed with.”
Abigail felt her arms grabbed as she was roughly turned around and her carefully dirtied hands were bound behind her back, the rope biting deeply into her skin as it was pulled tight. They must have seen her wince as it provoked a chorus of laughter which rang in her ears.
“Looks like this life’s a bit too rough for you, sonny.”
 A thick, smelly bag was thrust over her head, obliterating the world, before she was lifted back onto her little colt and she felt herself led off to face the rest of the gang.



  1. Great overview of the New Year celebrations. What we don't do to aim for a better tomorrow. Doris

    1. Thanks. It's a wonderful time of the year for us Scots. I loved finding out about all the other traditions.

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you, Kristy. Happy New Year to you and yours too.

  3. Christine, this is just fascinating. I had no idea. I love the different colored underwear tradition! LOL And I didn't know that about the dropping balls, either. I learned a lot from this post (as always!) HAPPY NEW YEAR!

    1. Thanks. I learned a lot researching it. I had no idea about many of them.

  4. Wow, there was so much information in here, Christine. See, when I read the word "Hogmany" it looks like many hogs and makes me think they wanted to eat pork. Though I am of Scottish decent, I am also Pennsylvania Dutch, so the cabbage (in the form of sour kraut) and pork were always out New Year's Day tradition.
    That is a fascinating cover for Innocent Bystander. I like it.
    This was a most informative blog and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it even though I was a bit late getting here. I wish you the best year possible in 2019!

    1. Thank you, Sarah. A very happy New Year to you and yours. Thanks about the cover too. Livia and Cheryl are great at working with us to get good covers, aren't they?

  5. Happy New Year to you, and a happy and successful writing year to one and all!