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In the tradition of many cultures worldwide, let us begin the day at sunset, rather than at midnight. Many holidays are primarily celebrated on the night before. New Year is among these. If we start New Year at midnight, we miss the party.
Here in the United States, the chief traditions are to dress up in formal wear, attend elegant parties, drink too much champagne, and kiss various members of the opposite sex at midnight. These indiscriminate kisses are remnants of the sexual license of Saturnalia, the favorite holiday of demigods and other supernatural beings for thousands of years. We will speak of Saturnalia later.
Americans attach great importance to having a date on New Year's Eve. Being alone is considered an omen of continued loneliness, and visible evidence of low status. Further, one's companion on New Year's Eve should be a serious prospect, not a casual date. The stress of finding just the right date on New Year's Eve is such that newly engaged couples are frequently told, "Now you will always have a date for New Year's Eve," no matter what time of year they make the announcement.
For those unwilling to participate in the circus of formal parties and obligatory romance, the tradition is to stay up until midnight in front of the TV, watching the public celebrations in New York. If you have someone special to kiss at midnight, this arrangement can be just as satisfactory as going out. If the kissing leads to canoodling, you may hear the Folk, giggling from behind the headboard.
On New Year's Day, the tradition is to have a hangover from the excessive champagne consumed the night before. If one has been so imprudent as to give the first kiss at midnight to someone other than one's own spouse, a chilly greeting is also traditional. Once these have been gotten out of the way, the tradition is to watch parades, either in person or on television. We also resolve to improve ourselves, by breaking all of our bad habits.
Human nature being what it is, all of these resolutions are to be abandoned by Twelfth Night, which is January 6. If we were to succeed in banishing our foibles, we would bore the Folk right out of our lives.
Some regions have celebratory foods associated with New Year's Day. In the southern states, people eat black-eyed peas for luck, either plain or combined with rice to make Hoppin' John. Doing so brings luck and prosperity for the coming year. Luck is in the domain of the Folk. Anything that we do "for luck" we are actually doing to gain the favor of the Folk.
Farther afield, traditions vary.
In Germany, as in the U.S., the tradition is to throw parties and stay up past midnight. They have the added incentive of fireworks at midnight to give them a reason to stay awake. Fireworks were invented in China, and first used there to frighten away evil spirits. The wonder and joy with which human crowds watch fireworks are just as effective in attracting benevolent beings.
For luck, Germans throw an egg over the house, and bury it where it falls. This is most effective for people with small houses and strong throwing arms. For others, the effects are indistinguishable from the Halloween custom of egging houses. Germans also believe that those who eat smoked pork chops and sauerkraut on New Year's Day will have plenty of money all year.
New Year is the most important holiday in Japan, and is celebrated for three days. As with many traditional holiday celebrations, the women take this opportunity to clean their houses from top to bottom. Japanese people decorate their front doorsteps. In their entryways, they place giant rice cakes and tangerines, which they will eat with their families when the holiday ends. They display other symbols of prosperity as well, such as ferns, oranges, and lobsters. The host of Folk take notice, and provide the householders with the real prosperity that the decorations symbolize.
The Japanese send cards to everyone they know, much as we do at our most important holidays. Children visit all their relatives, who give them money. As we do, the Japanese resolve to break all their bad habits. They fly kites, spin tops, and play cards and board games. They ring the temple bells 108 times, to drive off evil influences for the coming year.
Indonesians consider it important to make a lot of noise on New Year's Eve, with paper trumpets and other devices. As Indonesia is predominantly Moslem, they change the date for the New Year's festivities if December 31 falls during a Moslem fast. The Folk are flexible, and will as soon attend a party on one day as on another.
In Finland, people tell fortunes on New Year's Eve by dropping small amounts of molten tin into a bucket of cold water. With skill, they read the future in the shadows cast by the irregular pieces of tin. All fortune-telling activities involve the Folk, as foretelling the future involves pulling aside the curtain that separates our realm from the timeless land of Faerie.
In Puerto Rico, people consider it vital to clean not only their houses but their cars, and even the streets in front of their homes. They believe that, in whatever condition the stroke of midnight finds their property, that's the way it will remain for the next year.
For luck, Puerto Ricans eat one grape at each stroke of the clock at midnight. This tradition comes from Spain, and is common to many Spanish-speaking countries. It is more difficult than it sounds. When the clock has finished striking, people run outside and honk their car horns. In other parts of Latin America, people welcome the New Year by firing pistols into the air. This leads to the complementary custom of huddling indoors for safety. As a confirmed huddler, I prefer the honking of horns. The noise is not used to drive off evil spirits, but is considered festive in its own tight. No one may avoid the celebration by sleeping.
After midnight, there is a celebratory feast. This is not unusually late, as the custom in most cultures that derive from Spain is to eat dinner after 10:00 P.M., even on school nights. The Folk in Spain behave much like the Folk in France and Germany, with whom we have been familiar since childhood, when we heard European "fairy" tales. Remember the stories of Cinderella, of Beauty and the Beast. These Folk enjoy late nights, fine food, and dancing.
In Cuba, in addition to the customs cited for Puerto Rico, children build scarecrows, which they keep on their front porches during the day. At midnight, they take the scarecrows outside and burn them. Wildness, anarchy, and danger are also attributes of the Folk worldwide. This is something we have in common with them, in the secret cores of our hearts.
In Mallorca, an island off the coast of Spain, families have a festive dinner together before midnight. They watch the festivities in Madrid on the TV, masting the stroke of midnight with Spanish bubbly. Then the old folks and the children turn in, while those of a dancing disposition go out to party until dawn. In many circumstances, the Folk seek out the company of old people, who are full of stories and wisdom, or of children, who are innocent and open to new experiences. On New Year's Eve, the Folk would rather go dancing.
In Orkney, between Scotland and Greenland, young men in masks go from house to house, singing. Householders reward them for their efforts with food and beer. Because of the masks, the householders do not know whether the singers are their own neighbors or magical beings, with the power to bless or blast. The Folk are numerous in Orkney, and powerful.
There are many fairy traditions related to New Year's Eve in Iceland. The people believe that on New Year's Eve cows can talk, seals take human form, and the dead rise from their graves. If they have never witnessed these events, it is because of a taboo regarding nosiness. It is bad luck to eavesdrop on a vocal cow or to spy on the seal-folk when they become human. The seal-folk, or selkies, are among the most beloved of all the Folk. Like Orkney, Iceland was settled by a combination of Celts and Vikings, and Icelandic lore combines the lore of both.
New Year's Eve is also the time when the Elves change their houses. There is no taboo against watching the Elves move. In fact, the people of Iceland say that if you wait at the crossroads for the Elves to pass, they will give you gold.
In Iceland, water turns to wine on New Year's Eve. If it turns to blood instead, the people believe that their Parliament will be especially contentious that year. Weather predicts the fortunes of the family. If frost collects on the pantry floor on New Year's Eve, the family will have a happy and prosperous year.
In earlier times, one more method of divination was practiced in Iceland on New Year's Eve. If a person wanted to see the face of his or her future spouse, that person should go into a pitch-dark room, and look into a mirror. Three times the figure of a man holding a knife would appear in the mirror. If the questioner kept watching without fear, he or she would be rewarded with a vision of the future spouse.
Bonfires and fireworks greet the coming of the New Year. As in Mallorca, so far to the south, families stay together until midnight. After midnight, the young people go out to dance away the darkness with each other, and with the Folk, eternally young.
Traditional Holiday Fare
Ham Hocks and Blackeyes Serves 6-8
1 smoked ham hock 1 pound black-eyed peas 1 onion, finely diced Water to cover 1 tsp granulated garlic 1 tsp ground black pepper Salt to taste, if needed
Place ham hock in 3-quart heavy saucepan. Wash black-eyed peas, and check them over to make sure there are no pebbles or bits of dirt present. Add black-eyed peas and onion to pot. Pour water over the peas to cover them to a depth of 2 inches. Cover and bring to a boil over medium heat. When it boils, turn heat to low, and simmer for 1 hour. Add garlic and pepper, and simmer until the peas begin to fall apart, another 30 minutes. Remove ham hock. Pull meat from skin and bone. Discard skin and bone, dice meat, and return it to peas. Taste, and add salt if necessary.
Substitute 1 pound ham or smoked sausage for the ham hock if desired.
Meat may be omitted, if a vegetarian dish is desired.
Classically, Hoppin' John is made by cooking rice with black-eyed peas. The problem with this technique is that black-eyed peas require three times as long to cook to perfection as rice. I prefer to cook the rice separately, and ladle ham hocks and blackeyes over rice on the serving plate.
Smoked Pork Chops and Sauerkraut
2 pounds smoked pork chops 1 quart good-quality commercial sauerkraut 2 apples, thinly sliced 1 onion, thinly sliced
Brown pork chops in large, nonreactive skillet. Drain sanerkraut, and rinse with cold water. Layer sauerkraut, apples, and onions over pork chops. Cover and simmer over low heat for 40 minutes,
Serve with noodles or boiled potatoes.
In January, the northern hemisphere still has to look forward to the worst of its winter weather. In hope of spring to come, the winter festivals end now, and the spring festivals begin. January 6, known in medieval England as Twelfth Night, is ignored by most Anglo-Americans. In Europe, Latin America, and one corner of the U.S., it is celebrated in high style.
In most Catholic counties, Three Kings' Day is the formal end of the Christmas season. Children go back to school the next day, and their parents go back to work. This is the last chance for a Christmas party, and they take that chance.
In Germany, people go caroling door to door. The Christmas tree, which was put up on Christmas Eve, is taken down on January 6. This is a festive event for the children, as they will finally be allowed to eat the candy and cookies that have adorned the tree. To share the bounty with the birds and the Folk, take the tree outside, with the cookies and popcorn chains still on it.
In the old days, communities collected the discarded trees on this day, and used them to fuel a public bonfire. Bonfires always attract fire spirits, such as peries and salamanders. People throw parties to use up the last of the Christmas goodies, and sing Christmas carols for the last time until next winter. The Three Kings' Cake makes its appearance, a close cousin of the King Cake that Americans know from Mardi Gras.
In Mexico, Puerto Rico, and most other Latin American locales, children leave boxes of grass under their beds on the night before Epiphany. This is a treat for the Three Kings' camels. The original Kings and their camels, of course, have been gone for many hundreds of years. The Kings who continue to make their rounds in tropical countries are of supernatural origin. In the morning, the grass will be gone, which is proof that the Kings have come. In place of the grass are sweets and toys. Families and friends exchange gifts. As in Germany, they serve a special cake in honor of the Three Kings. As in New Orleans, whoever finds the token in the cake, which may be a bean, a nut, or a tiny doll, is obligated to throw a party on February 2, Candelaria. Finally, they take the decorations down, and Christmas officially ends.
As Mallorca is an island, it differs slightly from other Spanish-influenced areas in its celebration of Three Kings' Day. The Three Kings arrive on the island by boat on January 5. A parade takes them from the dock to the town. Children must go to bed early, so the Kings can leave their presents under their beds while they sleep.
In Ireland, January 6 is known as "Little Christmas." It is the last day on which it is proper to throw Christmas parties.
In Iceland, the Elves dance. As in the British Isles, the northern lights are seen as the visible manifestation of the presence of the Folk. People also have bonfires. Yes, they just had bonfires on New Year's Eve. As cold and dark as Iceland is at midwinter, its inhabitants take every opportunity to warm and brighten it with bonfires.
In Canada, January 6 is one of the dates on which some communities celebrate the Feast of Fools. Other communities celebrate it on December 25, as was done in medieval France, or on January 1. Social customs are upended on the Feast of Fools. Chaos reigns. The Folk walk and dance among us.
And, of course, Epiphany marks the beginning of the Mardi Gras season in New Orleans.
Excerpted from The Fairy Party Book by Marina T. Stern Copyright © 2003 by Marina T. Stern
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