Written By Jeffrey Roth
Many Italians buy and wear red underwear for good luck in the New Year.
Gettysburg College professor of philosophy Steve Gimbel said that of all the major holidays, New Year’s is the only forward-looking one. Halloween, he said, was traditionally a time to remember loved ones who have passed on; Thanksgiving is a time people focus primarily on the present by giving thanks, and Christmas focuses on the past and present.
“If you look at New Year’s traditions, they tend to point to what’s to come — to find health, happiness, love or wealth — a time when we don’t think about what is now, but what will be,” said Gimbel, a Pikesville native who lives in the Mt. Airy area. “The most straight-forward tradition we have is making resolutions; what we are thinking about is not how we are, but how we would like to be.”
Many New Year’s traditions, such as eating pork and sauerkraut for good luck; or putting money on the top of the exterior door frame for financial fortune, are designed to achieve a certain state of being in the future. Watching the ball drop New Year’s Eve, counting down the seconds, is an American tradition that anticipates the exact moment when the new year begins, Gimbel said.
“What we’re doing is declaring Ôout with old and in with the new’; celebrating the baby born closest to that instant. New Year’s is the only holiday in which a particular second is found to be meaningful and significant,” Gimbel said. “How do we mark it? We mark it with sounds that are not only loud, but are quick and short, whether it is shooting a gun into the air or celebrating with fireworks demonstrating that we want that moment marked.”
Pork paired with sauerkraut in German and Pennsylvania Dutch traditions is another way to secure economic luck in the new year. The leaves of the cabbage from which sauerkraut is made symbolize paper money. In Celtic culture, pork was considered to be the food of the gods.
The new baby tradition, which Gimbel mentioned, originated in ancient Greece. In honor of Dionysus, god of wine, a baby was placed in a basket and paraded around to signify the yearly rebirth of that deity; and it represented the spirit of fertility.
Gimbel said creating loud noises may or may not be connected to the Chinese tradition of using fireworks to scare away evil spirits and bring good luck. It is known that cultures around the world, including Native Americans, believed that making loud noises signified the beginning of a new life and prevented evil spirits from possessing individuals. The custom of holding a New Year’s Day parade, in which people often wear masks or are dressed in costumes, was thought to be another way to scare away evil spirits.
“Wearing red goes back to the Middle Ages,” Gimbel said. “Red has traditionally been a color of good luck, in part because in ancient times red dye was very expensive and if you could afford a red garment, it meant that you were wealthy. Catholic cardinals wore red as a way to express that they held a prominent position. As to wearing red underwear, the fear was that witches were going to cast spells on one’s reproductive organs; and of course, having children was a key to good luck and prosperity.”
Speaking of red hair, it is considered bad luck to allow a redhead to be the first person to enter the house on New Year’s Day, said Michael Olmert of the University of Maryland. Eating black-eyed peas for good luck is a Maryland tradition.
Olmert, a professor of English, said the warning against allowing a red-haired person to be the first visitor comes from beliefs in sympathetic magic. Red is the color of flame and the color red will propagate the flame — which is something to be avoided.
“Most of these traditions are old and European in origin,” Olmert said. “They were much more common when I was younger. I grew up in Montgomery County. Eating black-eyed peas was definitely an Old World custom. Some people continue the tradition of eating black-eyed peas for good luck.”
Making loud noises, he said, may have also represented “making a joyful noise unto the Lord.”
“I teach Shakespeare and there is a lot of folklore in Shakespeare, as well as in all medieval literature,” Olmert said. “One of the things that ruins folklore is the rise of mass media because everybody is infected by ideas they see on television or hear on the radio in their cars. The great days of collecting folklore are mainly behind us.”
Imbibing alcohol, going to parties and social events are traditions that can be traced back to Old World European and later, colonial American times, Gimbel said. Unfortunately, some of the traditions that involve food and alcohol have been transformed by modern society, into celebrations of gluttony and over-indulgence.
“But what we do on New Year’s Eve, is use it as an excuse to over indulge, which we do with other holidays,” Gimbel said. “Folklore, in the form of urban legends, represents our old traditions making them more technological.”
Another belief relates to the practice of kissing the person you are with on New Year’s Eve. The tradition goes that the first person someone kisses at midnight will become a mate for the entire year.
The lyrics of “Auld Lang Syne”, (even though most people have no idea what words actually mean), traditionally sung on New Year’s Eve, originated in a Scottish poem by Robert Burns, written in 1788. It became a part of American culture when Guy Lombardo played the song at midnight at a party in New York City in 1929. Auld Lang Syne translated into modern English, means “old long since,” but is generally associated with the idea of times gone by.
For more information on New Year’s traditions, visit www.almanac.com/content/new-year-traditions-around-world.