What Are Your New Year Traditions?

As partygoers, family and friends come together tonight and welcome 2010, all around the world, people will be partaking in rituals. Some religious, some superstitious — from kissing a sweetheart at midnight, to eating black-eyed peas on New Years Day.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Well, of course, it's New Year's Eve. A kiss at midnight, new clothes, eating grapes or black-eyed peas, we greet the New Year with rituals, including that sometimes raucous party and with a countdown, as family and friends gather to usher in 12 months that are guaranteed to be successful, happy and prosperous. So what do you do at midnight? Where do your rituals come from? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And you can always join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now is Matthew Hutson, news editor at Psychology Today, with us at our bureau in New York. And a happy New Year's, and nice of you to come in today.

Mr. MATTHEW HUTSON (News Editor, Psychology Today): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And do you have a superstition for tonight?

Mr. HUTSON: Nothing specific. I think I'm just going to try to make sure that I'm in a good mood when the clock strikes 12.

CONAN: In a good mood?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, that's a best way to start the New Year.

Mr. HUTSON: Yeah.

CONAN: I wonder, where do superstitions come from?

Mr. HUTSON: I would say that there are three general ways of picking up superstitions. Some you hear from other people, are passed on through culture. We tend to believe things that people tell us, whether they're true or false. We just take them at their word, things like the earth is round or Santa Claus exists�

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HUTSON: �things you can't really experience for yourself, so you just trust what you hear. Or it's lucky to do X or Y. Some things you notice for yourself, as humans, we're, in general, as animals, we spot things in an environment. And we learn about the environment by spotting patterns. If you see two things correlated, you often assume there's causation. If you wear the same hat every time you win a tennis match, then you think there's something about the hat.

CONAN: Lucky hat.

Mr. HUTSON: Yeah. And then there's some things that are symbolic, you notice on your own. For instance, your birthday might become a lucky number. I'm - I was born on the 14th, so I just have a general positive feeling about the number 14. So I might think that if I have 14 of something, then that's lucky. So these are just sort of self-evident...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HUTSON: ...symbolic patterns.

CONAN: And is - well, you know, we think of Christmas Day as this sort of - the solstice celebration. It's - 25th of December is the first time you can notice the days getting longer again, and at least - unless you have very sophisticated equipment. January 1st comes just a few days - just a week later.

Mr. HUTSON: Yeah. It's a time for - it's a general time for renewal. There are a lot of things going on. It's a way to get a fresh start on life.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking about the traditions and superstitions of New Year's Eve. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Nancy, Nancy calling us from Reno in Nevada.

NANCY (Caller): Hi. I just want to share my tradition. On New Year's Day, we always eat pork and sauerkraut. And as it has been passed down, you eat pork because a pig roots forward, and you want to go - move forward into the new year�

CONAN: Okay.

NANCY: �and never eat chicken, because a chicken scratches backwards.

CONAN: Ah. Okay. And the sauerkraut?

NANCY: You know, I don't know the significance of that. There is something, but I don't remember what it was.

CONAN: Well, maybe it just goes well with the pork.

NANCY: There you go.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks very much, Nancy.

NANCY: Thank you.

CONAN: That's a New Year's Day tradition. Our old friend Simon Winchester wrote a column, saying, you know, how - why is it that we have this thing of counting down to midnight? We don't set off the July 4th fireworks at midnight on July 4th. We don't' celebrate Christmas at midnight on Christmas Day. We wait till a sensible time in the morning.

Mr. HUTSON: Well, we - I guess we like ceremonies. We like big events. And as one - you know, as seasons stayed into the next, it's hard to - you have to take some arbitrary moment to celebrate.

CONAN: Hm.

Mr. HUTSON: So midnight seems as good as time as any.

CONAN: An excuse to stay up late, anyway. Here's an email that we have from Kate in Beverly, Massachusetts. My family's - my husband's family is Slavic, from Western Pennsylvania. We eat pork and sauerkraut for good luck every New Year's Day. Another pork - vote for pork and sauerkraut. It also happens to be our dog's birthday, which we celebrate with our friend's children. While not a superstition, it is certainly very silly. Okay.

Let's see if we can go next to Karen, Karen with us from Blacksburg in Virginia.

KAREN (Caller): Hi. Yes. The tradition at our house, which was my partner's tradition she got from her father, is to grill dinner, to eat at midnight, and make it a fancy, wonderful dinner so that that sets the mood for the New Year. But she always grills it. And he always grilled it, even though he was in southwestern New Jersey and we're down in the mountains of Virginia. You still grill it, and it doesn't matter if it's snowing or sleeting or what it's doing outside.

CONAN: You mean, you'd take it out on the Weber and grill it, you start the (unintelligible).

KAREN: You take it out to the grill and you actually grill at least the meats for dinner.

CONAN: And do you know why he started that tradition?

KAREN: I have no idea, and I don't think she knows.

CONAN: But that's the rule.

KAREN: But that is the rule, that you have to cook it outside on the grill and eat it at midnight, and that it has to be this wonderful dinner. So it usually has some lamb or, you know, a fancy, you know, pork or beef, sometimes all three, and, you know, really nice vegetables and stuff to drink, you know, both some champagne-type thing and then usually some sparkling cider for the kids.

CONAN: Yup. I...

KAREN: And you eat it at midnight.

CONAN: And you eat it at midnight. Well, Karen, what are you making tonight?

KAREN: I'm not sure what she's making tonight, because she's cooking.

CONAN: All right. All right, well, I'm sure it'll be great.

KAREN: Oh, sure it is.

CONAN: Happy New Year.

KAREN: It'll be a surprise, and it'll be wonderful. Thank you. You, too.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email we have from Tiffany: In my family, going way back on our Irish side, we bang pans at midnight. As a child, the week before New Year's meant the picking out of just the right pan with just the right tone to scare the bad spirits of the previous year from following you into the New Year. Now, most neighbors would come out and look to see what was going on. And only one year was our family bested for probably the craziest people on the block when an older gentleman in a full dress tartan came out and played his bagpipe to keep the bad spirits away.

Mr. HUTSON: Supposedly, that's why church bells are rung at weddings, also, to scare away the bad spirits.

CONAN: So it's definitely - well, all right. Let's go to Murphy, Murphy with us from Oklahoma City.

MURPHY (Caller): Hi. Thanks for letting me come on the air. I'm also from an Irish family, and I just heard the previous caller. We do the same thing. At midnight, we all - me and my five brothers and sisters and my parents go out on the front porch and bang all of the pots and pans from the kitchen together, and usually set off some illegal fireworks, as well. And then the next day, none of us black-eyed peas first of the year, but we all have at least one bowl of it just for good luck.

CONAN: Black-eyed peas for good luck. Matthew Hutson, any idea where that comes from?

Mr. HUTSON: Well, the black-eyed peas, I believe it represents money. It's supposed to resemble coins - lentils, perhaps more so. The general theme of a lot of New Year superstitions seems to be that you're trying to set the tone for the entire rest of the year, so there are a lot involving money. People make sure they have money in their wallets so that it'll be prosperous throughout the following 12 months, or make sure that they're not in debt. A friend of mine was telling me last night that growing up, she would always - her mother told her to put silver dollars in the corners of the room...

CONAN: Hm.

Mr. HUTSON: ...and make sure that she had a silver dollar in her wallet.

CONAN: That's - silver dollars in the corners of the room, like, I guess, anchoring like a some sort of a pentagram or something like that.

Mr. HUTSON: Yeah.

CONAN: Anyway, Murphy, thanks very much for the call. Let's go next to - this is Cathy(ph), Cathy calling from Detroit.

CATHY (Caller): Hi. I have a - excuse me - an observation, that I'm not sure where it came from, but that having a full moon on New Year's Eve is a guarantee of a prosperous and better new year. And I wondered if there's any significance to that being also a blue moon this year.

CONAN: A blue moon, of course, the second full moon in one calendar month. And I guess if there is going to be a full moon on New Year's Eve, it's got to be a blue moon by definition. So, Matthew Hutson?

Mr. HUTSON: Well, I don't know the specific origin of the full moon on New Year's Eve. But it seems like a - well, it's a more rare event, and all the more reason to select it as a sign of something positive. We could, of course, say that it's a sign of bad luck, but, you know, why would you want to do that?

CONAN: Why would you want to do that, spoil a perfectly good story? Cathy, are you going to be able to see the blue moon tonight there in Detroit? I think Cathy's left us. Anyway, we wish her a happy New Year's. And let's see if we can get - let's go to Sheri(ph), Sheri with us from Walnut Creek in California.

SHERI (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

SHERI: Yes. Our superstition is you have to have a dark-headed man be the first person to enter your house on New Year's Day.

CONAN: And why would that be?

SHERI: I don't know. I think it's Irish, to tell you the truth. I think it's an Irish tradition. I have no idea why, but we always do it.

CONAN: Matthew Hutson, any ideas on that one?

Mr. HUTSON: A lot of these cultural - culturally specific superstitions, I am not positive of the origin. What's interesting, though, is that people seem to follow them, even if they don't know the reason. That's either because it's handed down and someone tells them that it's good luck, and so they believe it. Or something happens once and some - and then, you know, positive results follow. So they think, you know, I don't know why this led to that, but maybe it did, so I'll just keep the pattern going.

CONAN: Is there a dark-haired man who will wander the neighborhood tonight in Walnut Creek, Sheri?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHERI: Well, I'm going to have to enlist the neighbor, I believe.

CONAN: All right. Well, good luck and have a happy New Year's.

SHERI: Thank you. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Here's an email from Angela: Every New Year's Eve, when we count at midnight, all our friends and family commence in a huge pillow fight to bring in the New Year. Whether outside in the cold weather or inside, the rule or superstition is that everyone has to hit everybody at least once so that they have good luck. We started this tradition over 10 years ago, and it has stuck since. Even our newest babies get a little love tap from tiny pillows. Who knows why we do this, but it's the best way to start a new year, laughing and giggling and good old-fashioned pillow fight. It's something that we all look forward to. Our friends and family bring their own pillows when they come over to party. Good luck to you, guys, and happy New Year. Also, my mother always lights green candles on New Year's Eve. Maybe, she asks, is that an Asian tradition? I have no idea.

We're talking about the superstitions for New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. Our guest is Matthew Hutson of Psychology Today. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's see if we can go next to Brian, Brian with us from Rock Hill in South Carolina.

BRIAN (Caller): How are you doing? Happy New Year.

CONAN: Happy New Year.

BRIAN: Our tradition, it's going on eight years now, is fondue on New Year's eve.

CONAN: Really?

BRIAN: Yup. Yup. About eight years ago, we thought about going out for fondue and, you know, the prices are roughly are analogous to your firstborn child, so we decided to go ahead and make it ourselves.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And what kind of cheese do you prefer?

BRIAN: I'm a cheddar guy.

CONAN: A cheddar guy. And...

BRIAN: Yup. I'm a cheddar guy. But we do the full run. We do a cheese fondue to start out with. Then we do vegetable broth and heat it up and do our shrimp and rib eye and vegetables.

CONAN: Wow.

BRIAN: And then we switch out the fondue pan or fondue pot and we do our chocolate fondue. And we have orange and crushed-up Oreos or marshmallows and all manner of decadent things that are not good for you.

CONAN: Brian, and the address we're going to tonight?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRIAN: It's in South Carolina, so it's a bit of haul from Washington, D.C.

CONAN: Well, maybe we'll find some quick way to get there. Thanks very much. Have a great time.

BRIAN: Thanks to you, as well. Happy New Year.

CONAN: Bye-bye. This is from Serpa(ph). A new Year's tradition in my native Finland, we all - almost all - do this: We predict the events of the New Year by casting melted tin the shape of a horseshoe into a bucket or snow or cold water. The future is told by holding the piece by light. The shadow on the wall tells you what's going to happen. Tiny pieces indicate money. This doesn't contradict going to church 11 p.m., followed by a hymn at midnight outside, followed by fireworks. But since my husband and I lived in Barcelona, I've added a Catalonian custom of 12 uvas, grapes, coated in sugar that we enjoy, each at midnight.

And a lot of these seem to be religious in origin. We're talking about by the spirits. A lot of people like to open all their cabinets too, to let spirits out.

Mr. HUTSON: All right, I've also heard about opening doors and windows to let all the spirits, the bad spirits out and let good spirits in.

CONAN: Let's go to Bob(ph). Bob with us from Springfield in Oregon. Hello?

BOB (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

BOB: Great. Just a little funny story. When I first got married - my mother-in-law is Norwegian and she happened to be serving lutefisk in - at Christmas. And we were talking about food and I happened to mention that we all always had sauerkraut at midnight. And asked her, you know, do the Norwegians have sauerkraut at midnight? She got very indignant and she said, of course not. We have brains. And it took a minute after a lutefisk to realize she was commenting on my heritage, not necessarily the - what they ate.

CONAN: If you - well, there are, I suppose, people who like it. But it's possible the only time you could push lutefisk on to people is because you have to eat as a tradition at midnight on New Year Eve.

BOB: Right.

CONAN: Bob, thanks very much.

BOB: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Mr. HUTSON: Gross food is a small price to pay for a year of...

CONAN: Of grace and good luck.

Mr. HUTSON: Yeah.

CONAN: Absolutely. Here's an email from Rachel(ph) in Tucson. Me, my two sisters and I leave change and bread in the window. This is so we will have food and money throughout the year. We got this from our father. I tried to investigate, this year, exactly where this came from but could not find an answer, but it seems to go along with the whole prosperity and good luck for the year.

And this is from Irene(ph) in South Wellesley in Massachusetts. Concerning the tradition of eating pork in a New Year's meal, including as an ingredient in black-eyed peas, apparently pigs can't look behind them, which would be auspicious at the turn of the year when we're all looking forward - as the other caller we had said they root forward. And anyway, let's see if we can go next to Pam(ph). Pam with us in Birmingham in Alabama.

PAM (Caller): Yes. Somewhere I read or heard a few years ago that it is considered bad luck to do laundry on New Year Day.

Mr. HUTSON: Mm-hmm.

PAM: And I'm wondering if you're familiar with that or is it - does that also generalized to any form of house cleaning?

CONAN: We got this email from Rebecca(ph) exactly on that point. My mother has been adamant about not doing the laundry on New Year's Day. According to my great mother - grandmother she wash clothes on New Year Day, then that year she lost her mother. Needless to say my mom warns me each New Year's Eve not to wash the clothes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HUTSON: Some of these symbols are somewhat metaphorical. For instance, washing, doing laundry, doing dishes, the parallel is with washing family members away. It's death. People are scared that, you know...

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. HUTSON: ...if you clean things then someone will die just because of that linguistic metaphor. So it's kind of a stretch, but people think the connections, the, you know, analogical reasoning, so - you kind of latch on to things like that.

CONAN: Pam, thanks very much.

PAM: The one that I heard said, they - it's bad luck to do laundry because it'll just be a never-ending thing. You'll be force to do it every New Years Day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HUTSON: Yeah. That's another one.

CONAN: All right. Pam, have a - I hope all your clothes are dirty on New Year's Day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PAM: I hope not.

CONAN: Here's an email we got from Lindsey(ph). We drink bad champagne because after that things always get better. That's an idea that I think a lot of other people have adopted as well. Matthew Hutson, thank you for your time today.

Mr. HUTSON: Thank you.

CONAN: And happy New Year to you.

Mr. HUTSON: You too.

CONAN: Matthew Hutson, a news editor at Psychology Today with us from our bureau in New York.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: