Of the major American holidays of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, New Year’s Day is the most secular and pragmatic of the three. Thanksgiving is typically more oriented toward the past, as we give thanks for blessings already bestowed. Christmas is concerned with the present, as it is a culmination of a period of anticipation. New Year’s Day, however, is all about the future. New Year’s resolutions list the things people intend to do. In José Feliciano’s classic "Feliz Navidad," we are wished a Merry Christmas right now, but prosperity in the coming new year. No one speaks about the joy of the New Year’s spirit. Traditionally the focus of New Year’s Day has been on assuring good fortune, prosperity and self-improvement. New Year's might best be summarized in to the Star Trek Vulcan greeting — “Live long and prosper.” Ironically, however, it also probably has the most superstitious rituals associated with it.
Across the globe, people see the new year as a time to clean the slate and start fresh. Of course, we would still like to retain all of our accumulated positive qualities. The designation of the new year is just an arbitrary delineation of time, loosely tied to natural phenomena. Psychologically, however, beginning a new year is like getting a clean sheet of paper. Anything can be written on it. It contains endless possibilities.
There is also a common belief that evil spirits and forces are afoot around New Year’s and need to be driven away or purged from homes. Rituals using fireworks and other methods of making noises on New Year's Eve began in China, as a method to ward off malevolent influences. New Year’s Eve is perhaps the best known holiday for fireworks displays, after the Fourth of July. Many people have made it a tradition to watch fireworks to usher in the new year.
As a child I can remember our neighbors and my father firing their shotguns in the air on New Year’s Eve, although this custom seems to be fading over time. In many cultures, however, houses are still scrubbed clean and swept vigorously to remove any bad vibrations and make room for better ones
The Japanese customarily hold New Year’s "forget-the-year parties." The purpose of these parties is to get closure on all of the bad events of the year. Anything bad that happened in 2019 stays in 2019 and not carried forward. This is also a time to resolve interpersonal conflicts and set grudges aside.
New Year’s resolutions are usually intended to improve one’s survival prospects. David Ropeik from Harvard says, “New Year’s resolutions… commonly include things like treating people better, making new friends, and paying off debts.” He notes that the Babylonians returned borrowed objects, the Jews sought and offered forgiveness, while the Scots traditionally wished their neighbors well. It turns out from an evolutionary perspective that the Golden Rule is a valuable survival strategy, since those that you treat well tend to reciprocate.
Ropeik says that “New Year’s Day provides us the chance to celebrate having made it through another 365 days, the unit of time by which we keep chronological score of our lives.”
The new year provides an opportunity to make desired changes, as well as a chance to terminate a period of bad luck and initiate a period of good luck. Many people also see it as a time to set the tone for the entire rest of the year. My father, for example, always gave me extra cash on New Year’s Day. He told me that if I had money in my wallet on New Year’s Day, I would have money all year long.
New Year’s rituals are often based on sympathetic magic, which is the belief that future events can be influenced through the manipulation of objects that symbolize them. For example, the eating of cabbage on New Year’s day is thought to encourage financial success because green has often been used to symbolize money — in popular parlance dollars have been known as “greenbacks.” Similarly, lentils are frequently eaten on New Year’s Day because of their resemblance to tiny coins.
The Dutch also believe that coin-like shapes symbolized material success, so they traditionally eat donut-like pastries on New Year’s Day. Greeks, however, bake a special cake containing a coin inside, similar to the King Cake served during Mardi Gras. The person who discovers the coin in their slice is destined to have good luck all year.
Fish is another dish commonly served around New Year’s Day. The custom probably originated in in maritime regions, where fish like herring symbolized good fortune. The scales of the herring resemble silver and for the Scandinavian countries, the herring trade was an essential part their economy.
My wife Diane’s family from Wisconsin always ate pickled herring during the Christmas holiday season. Herring was also common in Eastern European countries. When the Polish Catholic priest visited our house on Epiphany, my father always offered him some herring in cream sauce. Although I acquired a taste for a lot of our family’s ethnic holiday food, herring is just something that I never really liked, even with sour cream and onions.
My father was also fiercely opposed to eating turkey or any poultry on New Year’s Day. My mother favored turkey for the occasion and they often fought over this. His family believed that if you ate anything that scratched the ground on New Year’s Day that meant that you would have to scratch for your living all year long. Pork, on the other hand, was thought to bring good luck. I don’t know why they didn’t believe that if you ate pig you would have to root for your living all year. I think they just liked pork.
In many Eastern and Asian countries noodles are traditional New Year's Day fare. The length of the noodle symbolizes health and longevity, so it is important not to break the noodles during their preparation.
It may be true that as the rock band U2 once sang, "Nothing changes on New Year's Day,” but even the perception of a fresh start can be a powerful motivation for some people to make changes.
— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D. lives in Jeffersonville is the CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems and can be reached at email@example.com.