Philadelphia Mummers Parade, January 1, 1909

As the last moments of 2008 evaporate like a mongrel’s marking on the fire hydrant of hope, I’m doing a little extra-credit research into New Year food and New Year traditions — including any which might attract good luck next year. I just might be willing to eat a few unaccustomed snacks or crack my knuckles in a specific order if it will improve my direct deposit outlook for 2009.

I turn first to one of my favorite books for this sort of background information, Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things by Charles Panati, who dates this “oldest and most universal” holiday (literally “holy day”) back to Babylonia, circa 2000 BC.

Ancient New Year customs

Things were somewhat different 4,009 years ago. Back then, the New Year was celebrated late in March, at the vernal equinox, and rubbing the buttocks of a beheaded ram against the temple walls was considered a standard food safety precaution. Just like today, however, the theme of the occasion was prosperity — particularly sensible in spring when you’re sowing seed — and, as Panati writes, it was equally important to ingest:

Food, wine, and hard liquor were copiously consumed — for the enjoyment they provided, but more important, as a gesture of appreciation to Marduk for the previous year’s harvest.

Mummer’s parade

On the sixth day of this Babylonian party, a mummer’s play and parade were staged as “a tribute to the goddess of fertility.” I’m guessing this was Ishtar, who nevertheless failed to bestow plenty upon the 1987 movie bearing her name — or perhaps it was Ashnan, the Special K lady of her day with the sexy ears of corn sprouting from her shoulders.

We still, of course, have a famous New Year’s Day Mummers Parade in Philadelphia (the 1909 event is pictured above), and the parade’s official song, “O Dem Golden Slippers,” has also been used in the past as a commercial jingle for the breakfast cereal Golden Grahams.

The Catholic Church, meanwhile, has always frowned on goddesses as well as seasonal revelry, and so, as they are wont to do, they attempted to supplant New Year’s Day with their own January 1 celebration: The Feast of the Circumcision of Christ.

For some reason, this never caught on the way Christmas did, and so, since 1969, the first day of January has instead been called The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. This tradition started in Portugal where, I have read, there is a breakfast of scrambled eggs.

Vienna New Year’s Concert

Another New Year’s Day ritual which has never made perfect sense to me is the Vienna New Year’s Concert. According to Wikipedia, a billion people in 44 countries watch it on TV:

The concert always ends with three encores after the main programme. The first encore is a fast polka. The second encore is Johann Strauss II’s Blue Danube Waltz, whose introduction is interrupted by applause of recognition from the audience. The musicians then collectively wish the audience a happy new year, play The Blue Danube and close with Johann Strauss, Sr.’s Radetzky March. During this last festive piece, the audience participates with the traditional clap-along, and the conductor turns to the audience in time to conduct them instead of the orchestra.

I mean, this all sounds like a rip-roaring good time and everything, but what exactly do the Strauss fellas and their waltzes have to do with the New Year — and is a Viennese breakfast part of the ritual?

Perhaps all of my questions would be answered if I would ever watch the broadcast on PBS. I understand Julie Andrews is hosting this year, after 24 years of Walter Cronkite. You have to bet that she’ll shake things up.

New Year food for good luck

Here at Café Czerniec, we will most likely be enjoying the Hoppin’ John recipe that has become our New Year’s good luck food tradition. It’s the American South‘s expression of a widespread custom of pairing pig with legumes. Apparently, in addition to being a rich and fatty meat, pigs symbolize good luck (especially in combination with amanita mushrooms), while beans like black-eyed peas and lentils supposedly symbolize coins, and also plump up as a result of cooking. It seems counterintuitive, then, that pork-and-beans eaters are not generally thought of as being billionaires.

When putting your money where your mouth is, a more valuable token might be the leafy greens like collard greens in the Southern U.S., or the stewed kale of Denmark. I am reminded of those times I have failed to empty the cash from my pockets before laundering my jeans.

Pickled herring

My mom in Kenosha will no doubt have pickled herring on hand for the stroke of midnight — although whether she will be awake to eat it is a fair question. According to a December 2007 article by Tim Hennagir, herring was elevated to its charmed status in the American Midwest because of its scarcity:

Families in many Northern European countries, especially Germany, Scandinavia and Poland, found herring was an abundant and affordable food with high nutritional value.

When later generations began immigrating to the United States, many settled in the Midwest where herring was less available. Herring then became more of a treat served only for special occasions.

The food brought back nostalgic memories of the past, and with time, these cultures began to believe that eating herring on Christmas Eve or at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s would bring good luck in the year to come.

Hennagir also singles out the herring brand I know best, Milwaukee’s Ma Baensch. Her first name was Lena, or so the legend goes. Many of our region’s pickled delicacies come from Milwaukee all year long — like the Grade A turkey gizzards, for instance.

New Year’s food: Grapes at midnight

In Spain, people may eat turkey for their New Year’s Eve dinner, but their big thing is the grapes. As you have probably heard, they eat 12 grapes at midnight — one on each chime of the clock. What’s less well-known is that while they are eating the grapes, they are also wearing red underwear. I suppose this would also work for beets.

Tournament of Roses Parade

The Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California is our bloated American New Year’s Day spectacle. The key thing to know about the parade is that somehow — some way — all of the surface materials showing on all of the huge, costly, elaborate, and ridiculous floats have some connection to vegetable matter. When you think about it, though, peculiar and random rules are always at the heart of every beloved human ritual.

Actress Cloris Leachman is the grand marshal this year, and the parade is televised on an awful lot of channels. Al Roker and Nancy O’Dell will host for NBC, and it’s also on ABC, the CW, Univision, HGTV, and The Travel Channel. I wish I could watch it all, just to see who reads the most obscure vegetation-connection bullet point from their voluminous vegetation-connection notes.

The best tie-in tradition to the Rose Parade that I have ever heard came from Garry Meier, for whose family the Rose Parade triggered an irrestistable civic duty to take down their Christmas tree and the rest of their Christmas decorations. I would love to see this custom formalized in Racine, Wisconsin’s statutes, with a graduated series of penalties for violators — doubling, perhaps, each day.

Polar bear plunge

Lots of localities around the world feature some sort of “Polar Bear Club” which takes a “Polar Bear Plunge” into icy waters. The big New Year’s Day event here is the Racine Splash and Dash (Cash or Can) into frigid Lake Michigan at North Beach (Google Map here). The outing raises money and food for a variety of charitable causes in our area:

More than $20,000 was raised each of the last 3 years. The Splash and Dash believes in helping the Racine community with the basic necessities of food and shelter. That is why the money raised goes to the Racine County Food Bank and HALO (Homeless Assistance Leadership Organization). Last year the Splash and Dash included the Kiwanis Foundation as a benefactor of the jump and seven $1,000 scholarships were given to Racine youths.

The Splash and Dash Web site says bathers are going to start gathering at Coasters bar at 7:00 a.m. on New Year’s Day, then head over to North Beach for the quick dip at noon. So far, the weather forecast for the location looks reasonable. There’s a must-see video online showing the abnormally cold 2008 event. We have never been, but our neighbors across the street usually take their kids, and come home still dripping.

What about you? Do you have quirky New Year’s customs, or special foods or underwear that you employ to attract good luck for the coming 12 months?

Please leave a comment to share your secrets, for auld lang syne.

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