M y friend Christine fears her two children are growing up without enough family traditions. As she, another friend Celia, and I power-walked through the neighborhood, Christine lamented, "I need to start some family traditions. There's nothing special about our holidays and parties. For example, our Christmas gift giving, decorations, and dinner were completely generic. I felt so unimaginative. I want 2007 to be the year we start traditions in my family. And I might as well start with New Year's traditions." I suggested the New Year's Eve tradition I grew up with: running around the house banging pots and pans at the stroke of midnight. That didn't strike Christine's fancy. "My children turn into devils at the stroke of 10:00. I don't want to see what they look like at midnight."
Even after I told her our neighbors would stay awake just to watch us run around making as much noise as possible, she still wasn't interested. It had been my father's tradition in his neighborhood of Yonkers, New York. "Supposedly, you are making noise to chase away the evil spirits," he said, "but we just did it to wake up the neighbors."
Nor was she keen on Celia's idea. "Where I grew up in Argentina, there were lots of fireworks and firecrackers that go on until five o'clock in the morning," she offered. "And they were very loud. And every year, there was an army of children that ended up with bad burns because their parents were letting them set off these firecrackers."
As our walk wound down, I offered to scrounge up a few other possibilities for Christine and made a round of calls to acquaintances. The traditions that I discovered came in many flavors.
A few were a bit superstitious. "My mom always makes ham and black-eyed peas on New Year's Day," offered Bernice. "When she was a young bride, her mother-in-law told her to eat black-eyed peas on New Year's Day for good luck. She hated the peas, but would dutifully cook up a batch and eat one or two. Then years later, when she was vacationing in Branson, Missouri, the restaurant served 'Ozark Caviar': black-eyed peas with red and green peppers, green onions, and cilantro covered with an oil and vinegar dressing. She enjoyed it, and from then on she has made her peas the Ozark style."
Bernice continued on with another story. "My mom's best friend Claudine cooks what she calls Copper Pennies: sliced carrots served in a sweet sauce. It's supposed to bring prosperity in the New Year. Frankly, the carrots were easier to swallow than the peas."
Bernice added one last thought. "My parents always drank sweet pink champagne called Cold Duck. As a kid, I had no idea what it was, but I was always struck by the name. My mom said her parents used to drink sparkling burgundy on New Year's Eve, but they couldn't find any, so they started having Cold Duck instead."
A couple New Years traditions were spiritually bent.
My friend Carl's family says a Marian prayer at the stroke of midnight to dedicate the New Year to Mary. "It is beautiful," he says, "but a bit of a buzz kill. The bell strokes midnight, and it's 'On your knees for prayers,'" he joked.
My aunt shared an old Irish tradition. "It was considered lucky to be the first one to be blessed in the morning on New Year's Day," she stated. "The Irish would always greet people with a 'God bless you,' and to be the first one blessed that morning was considered an honor."
Husband Patrick's family eats cornbread and chili for New Year's Eve, and at the stroke of midnight, they break out singing the Hallelujah Chorus in four parts. It is not a surprise, considering they're all singers.
I discovered a few other foreign traditions to add to the list.
My niece Elizabeth, who now calls London home, says singing Auld Lang Syne is the tradition in England. "People will switch on the tellie to hear the Big Ben chime on the hour and then start singing," she offered.
Not surprisingly, the French have a tradition involving food. My friend Jessica, whose mother is from France, and her family eat 12 mini desserts on New Year's Eve. "The 12 desserts represent the 12 Days of Christmas," she stated.
Carmen, a Spanish friend of mine, said in her homeland, grapes are the item for New Year's Eve. "The tradition is to quickly eat 12 grapes the 12 seconds before midnight as the bell in Puerta del Sol Square is tolling," she explained. "If you finish the grapes, you are in for a year of good luck. The tradition started years ago when after a big grape harvest, the king gave all the people grapes to eat on New Year's Eve."
And a couple New Year's Eve traditions were memory themed. "The New Year's Eve before the new millennium," friend Sarah said, "my father gathered his family around and gave an emotional toast to all of us. Then he showed us a slide show of our life, all the memorable moments. I am going to start a yearly tradition, each New Year's Eve, of having the family watch the past year's momentous occasions on our home videos."
My sister Cathy has a different memory tradition. "In my home, on New Year's Eve, my husband and I sit down with some tea and the family's calendar. And we read through the past year week by week, remembering all that happened through the year. It is joyful and sometimes also painful remembering the events, so we do not do this with the kids. And when we are finished, we pray for all the people involved in our year."