By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky
When it comes to welcoming the New Year, the actual date and customs practiced for celebrating the holiday often depend upon one’s heritage, culture and religion, as well as what calendar you follow. For most of the world, December 31st is New Year’s Eve – a day often spent in merriment as we bid farewell to the passing year and celebrate the dawning of a New Year with optimism and good wishes. And since the people of America and the Old West came from diverse backgrounds and faiths, I thought it would be fun to look at customs and how different people, cultures, and spiritual beliefs have transcended time and continue to be used to welcome a New Year.
Since, as my friends know, I am extremely proud of my Scots ancestry, I will begin with the highland custom called Hogmanay!
Meaning the “last day of the year”, Hogmanay is an old, much loved custom in the highlands of Scotland. It dates back to the celebration of the Winter Solstice among the Norse yet also encompasses Gaelic customs used at Samhein. Much of Scotland’s traditions and customs are often intertwined with those of the Norse. When one remembers many people of Scots heritage are descendants of Vikings who crossed the North Sea to invade Scotland, it is not surprising in the least to see Norse influence still in existance in the culture and traditions of Scotland.
The customs practiced at Hogmanay begin at dawn on New Year's Eve. After a small breakfast, Scottish homes are cleaned from top to bottom until spotless. Items are placed about to convey what you would like to have happen in the New Year, i.e., coins for prosperity and symbols for health, love, and protection. When the clock strikes midnight, windows and doors are opened to welcome the New Year, and a feast is set for all to enjoy. And I mean "all". No one is turned away. And since it is a tradition for adults to go door-to-door singing or shouting Hogmanay, quite a crowd could be expected...which brings me to the Scots tradition of "first footing".
Basically, first-footing is the first person who crosses your threshold after midnight on New Year's Day. Traditionally, he or she should come bearing gifts such as: salt, shortbread (yum!), whisky, and a black bun (the dense, rich Scottish fruitcake). Another one of my favorites is the Clootie Dumpling, a dessert pudding made with flour, sugar, sultanas, currants, spices, and treacle.
Pictured right is a Clootie Dumpling.]
The gifts are supposed to bring luck to the house and family in the New Year. Naturally, in return, food and drink are offered to your guests. It can become quite the Céilidh or party as everyone who wants to be the first-footer shows up and you have a house full of guests – and lots of delicious goodies. Oh, and if a tall, dark (preferably handsome) man is your first-footer, needless to say that brings the best luck of all! Makes you wonder if whomever invented this tradition was a romance writer, doesn’t it? On the other hand, should a fairhaired man show up on your doorstep, the luck may not be so good, as they are a reminder of the Viking invaders. Hmmm.
Of course, no gathering would be complete without everyone singing Auld Lang Syne, the traditional New Year's anthem written by the famous Scottish poet, Robert Burns. And lest you think I jest about the level of merriment and partying for Hogmanay, the day after New Year's, January 2nd, is also a holiday in Scotland...no doubt a much appreciated day to recover from overindulgence.
Among the most popular traditions upheld today are the torchlight processions throughout the highlands. In Edinburgh this year you would see, "A bunch of noisy, hairy Vikings and Scottish highlanders, dragging a Viking warship, lead a 15,000 strong crowd bearing flaming torches" as they walk (along with some pipers)from historic Parliament Square on the Old Town's Royal Mile, down the Mound, along Princes Street and Waterloo Place, and up to the ancient Edinburgh meeting ground Calton Hill. Phew! Talk about a hike! Most cities, towns and villages in the highlands will have a torchlight procession, which culminates with everyone igniting a roaring bonfire and usually features a grand fireworks display.
The bonfire itself has a long history and great importance at Hogmanay. It represents everything from the Sun and the driving away of evil spirits, to how light will always conquer the darkness, and the belief that the bonfire will secure happiness and luck in the New Year. The bigger the bonfire, the better the luck. In fact, great care has always been taken to ensure the bonfire would not go out. Since everyone in the towns and villages would each carry a torch to light the bonfire, certain sure that the tradition must be upheld by the entire community, it would be a terrible omen of bad luck should the bonfire go out before sunrise.
Fire and, in particular, the color red also play an important role in the customs of another celebration of New Year -- the Chinese New Year. In fact, when celebrating the Chinese New Year, the only color to remember is red. Like the Scottish celebration of Hogmanay, fire is believed to drive away bad luck. In the past, bamboo stalks were set ablaze, and it was believed the fire and its crackling sound would frighten away evil spirits. Fireworks are also an important part of celebrating New Years for many countries and cultures. The Chinese New Year is no exception.
As mentioned before, the color 'red' plays an important role. In addition to wearing red clothing, decorations are predominately made of red paper. It is also traditional to give children “lucky money” in red envelopes.
The Chinese New Year does not begin on January 1st, and the date varies year to year. In the coming year, it starts on January 23, 2012. But when exactly did it start? According to legend, 4710 years ago, Buddha asked all the animals to meet him on the Chinese New Year. Twelve animals came, and Buddha named a year after each one (also known as Chinese zodiac signs). So, depending upon what year you were born, tradition says both your destiny and personality are predetermined by the zodiac animal. Although it does cause one to wonder how destiny fits into the picture, there are many who agree they possess some of the animal’s personality that symbolize the year of their birth. Here is a listing of the twelve ancient animals and the personality trait associated with each one, as well as a chart to determine what the animal sign for the year of your birth.
Rat – Quick-witted, smart, charming, and persuasive
Ox – Patient, kind, stubborn, and conservative
Tiger – Authoritative, emotional, courageous, and intense
Rabbit – Popular, compassionate, and sincere
Dragon – Energetic, fearless, warm-hearted, and charismatic
Snake – Charming, gregarious, introverted, generous, and smart
Horse – Energetic, independent, impatient, and enjoy traveling
Sheep – Kind, shy, mild-mannered, and peace-loving
Monkey – Fun, energetic, and active
Rooster – Independent, practical, hard-working, and observant
Dog – Faithful, patient, diligent, generous, and kind
Pig – Loving, tolerant, honest, and appreciative of luxury
At Chinese New Year, like Hogmanay, families unite to celebrate the New Year. Whether far or near, they gather at each other’s homes to share a traditional meal. Red lanterns painted with signs of the zodiac, birds, flowers, and even historical depictions, are placed about temples and carried under the light of the full moon in an evening parade. The crowning glory, as it were, of the Lantern Festival is the dragon dance. Made of silk, paper and bamboo, and stretching a hundred feet long, the dragon is held aloft by young men who dance through the streets. The stuff of legends, dragons are important to Chinese people. The dragon is considered a helpful, friendly creature. Perhaps more importantly, especially at New Year, they symbolize good luck, long life and wisdom.
On a more serious note, far from the fireworks and festive celebrations held every winter around the globe, the Jewish New Year—also known as Rosh Hashanah “the Day of Remembrance”—is a somber, religious observance celebrated each autumn. Also called the “Head of the Year” and the “Feast of the Trumpets”, it has been celebrated since Biblical times on the first and second day of the seventh month, known as Tishri. Basically, Rosh Hashanah remembers God’s creation of the world and also begins a 10-day period of judgment when all mankind will be held accountable for their deeds.
Since Biblical times, Jews have been called to worship by the sounding of a ram’s horn called the shofar. I have had the privilege of hearing a shofar, and it is not only magnificent but seems to resonate to the depth of your soul. I daresay it takes no stretch of the imagination to believe its sound carries with it the prayers of mankind to God in heaven.
In addition to playing a significant part in the two holiest days of the Jewish calendar, the shofar was also used to announce the new moon, holidays, and even war.
The sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah not only announces the holiday itself but the opening of the Book of Life and the time each year when mankind will be judged by their Creator according to their deeds. It is the time when the fate of the wicked, the righteous, and those who fall somewhere in the middle are recorded. The righteous are, of course, immediately inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year. The middle group (which likely includes those who aspire to be good and sometimes fail), are given a reprieve of sorts – a ten day period to reflect on their life and seek forgiveness so that their lives may be blessed and their names also inscribed in the Book of Life. As for the wicked, well, naturally their names are blotted out of the Book of Life forever.
Often called the Days of Awe – the 10-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a time for prayer, quiet introspection, meditation, and repentance. One must not only reflect on their sins, but use this time to also make peace with anyone they have offended – or those who have offended them. One must not seek the forgiveness of God on Yom Kippur unless he has made peace with those they have hurt or sinned against. At the end of this time period, Jews return to temple again in observance of Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. At the conclusion of the service, the shofar will be sounded again and the Book of Life will be closed for another year.
Customs include visiting the graves of loved ones, believing that the prayers of the dead help the living. Another tradition is called “Tashlich”. On the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Jewish people walk to a river or stream, and empty their pockets (in which small pieces of bread have been placed), into the flowing water. The gesture is to symbolize the casting off of one’s sins.
Traditional foods include apple dipped in honey, a symbolic hope that one will have a sweet year ahead. Challah, the customary braided Sabbath bread is shaped in a circle on Rosh Hashanah, to symbolize the crown of God, the circle of life, and the hope that our lives endure without end. The traditional greeting for the Jewish New Year is, L’shanah tovah , which translates to “May You Be Inscribed in the Book of Life for a Good Year.”
For most of us, however, bidding farewell to the old year and celebrating the coming year is held on New Year's Eve -- the evening of December 31st. Although each country may have its own special customs according to its culture and heritage, at midnight with the tolling of church bells and the echoing from clock towers, music, merriment, and fireworks are held all over the world. From Sydney, Australia to Paris, France, from London, England to Stockholm, Sweden and Copenhagen, Denmark, hundreds of thousands of people gather together in public settings to welcome the New Year. One of the most famous gatherings takes place at Times Square in New York City. Each year, a Waterford crystal ball begins to make its slow descent at 11:59 pm. Far below its lofty height, people join in unison to count down the final moments until the New Year officially begins. And this particular custom has been going on for 100 years!
People gathered in Times Square to celebrate New Year's Eve as far back as 1904, but it was not until 1907 that the New Year's Eve Ball first made its appearance from the top of a flagpole at One Times Square. Except for 1942 and 1943, Times Square and the New Year's Eve ball ceremony have never failed to mark the New Year.
Of course, not everyone celebrates New Years with crowds and noise, and the closest they get (or ever want to get) to festivities like Times Square is watching it on television. The truth is, there are many who prefer to embrace the peace and quiet of being by hearth and home. You may live alone and enjoy sitting by the fireside with a good book and a glass of wine. Or, you may prefer staying home, close to loved ones, where you can reflect, remember, and celebrate the dawning of a New Year as a nearby clock strikes twelve. Then again, perhaps you have a special tradition that your family observes. If so, please share it with us.
But whatever way you celebrate the New Year, I hope that 2012 brings you health and happiness, peace and prosperity, and renewed faith in the hope and promise that tomorrow always brings.
Thanks for stopping by, and I wish you all Bliadhna Mhath Úr or Happy New Year!
Slàinte! ~ AKB