New Year’s Day is an auspicious day in any calendar, whether it’s celebrated in autumn (Jewish New Year) or spring (Persian New Year) or on the second new moon following the Winter Solstice (Chinese New Year). Always the customs leading up to the day itself revolve around setting things right, cleaning the house, getting caught up on bills and paying off debts, returning borrowed items—clearing out old or stagnant energy to make a new start.
The pivotal moment of midnight is, of course, significant. In the United States, we kiss our beloveds and toast with champagne. In Spain, you eat twelve grapes, one for each month of the coming year. The goal is to be doing something at midnight that sets the tone for a happy year.
That sense of sympathetic magic extends throughout New Year’s Day. One is not to take anything out of the house, only bring things in. Guests should arrive bearing money and food. In ancient Rome, people gave gifts of coins. In China, gifts of money are given in red envelopes. In Germany, the good luck gift is often a “lucky” marzipan pig.
A rich meal is an important part of the celebration. The Chinese New Year dinner includes foods that symbolize long life (bean thread) and good luck (tangerines). Fish is a favorite in China (where it symbolizes the beginning and end of a cycle). In Germany, a pork roast represents prosperity. The Persian New Year dinner is similar: noodles that represent long life, rice with green herbs for prosperity, and a sweet dessert. Italians serve lentils, raisins, and oranges—symbols of riches, good luck, and the promise of love. In the southern United States, the New Year’s meal includes collard greens (which symbolize folded money) and black-eyed peas (because they resemble coins).
I like to designate New Year’s Day as my ideal day for the coming year and do a little bit of everything I hope to enjoy in the new year: yoga and meditation, reading and writing, designing a book and preparing a class, dancing and feasting with friends. My traditional New Year’s meal is one I adopted years ago from a recipe in the Moosewood Low-Fat Cookbook: a pasta dish with lentils and artichoke hearts, which symbolizes indulgence and abundance.
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”
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