A brief history of how people have marked the passage of time and celebrated new years, with a suggested New Year's menu designed to please all of your guests.
Even the most well-bred person may be subject to a fit of bad behavior at holiday parties.
One may suffer from an overdose, not necessarily of alcohol, but of frankness, cuddliness, reminiscences or other enemies of the social structure."
- Miss Manners
Any celebration of New Year’s Day attracts a mixed crowd.
With another year irretrievably gone, some guests are sunk in a wholly satisfying depression. They've just inventoried the past 12 months and found opportunities lost, things undone: roads untraveled, pounds unshed, books unwritten, children unreformed. Ten minutes along these lines, and they're ready for strong drink and chocolate.
A second faction is in the spine-stiffening grip of New Year's resolutions. No more smoking, drinking, feasting, debauching. This year they're going to get it right: Spartan self-denial, meteoric accomplishment, impeccable nutrition. And they're starting now.
A third group arrives mellow. They've come to rueful terms with life—probably the night before—and they expect this year to resemble the last: a mixture of success and failure, gain and loss. Buoyant with good cheer and fellow feeling, they're ready to celebrate a new beginning, another chance.
Given such a diversity of guests, devising a New Year’s menu that will satisfy everyone is a challenge. Happily, there are precedents. Across the centuries, humanity has celebrated this oldest and most universal of festivals—the renewal of time—with the same three themes: loss, resolution, and joy.
Beginnings—whether of life, love or disaster—are difficult to pinpoint. At various times and places, the start of a new year has been assigned to harvest time, the winter solstice (December 21), the summer solstice (June 21), the autumnal equinox (September 21) and the vernal equinox (March 21).
The Romans were the first to designate January 1 as New Year's Day. Traditionally, their year had begun with the vernal equinox. But in 153 B.C., the newly elected consuls decided that, since they would take office on January 1, a new cycle actually began then. Thus did an agricultural and seasonal festival become a civil celebration (an early instance of the federal government rearranging holidays to suit itself ). Europeans maintained their springtime observances until 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII reinstituted the first of January, despite its pre-Christian connotations. Catholic Europe followed immediately; Protestant countries took a few hundred years to come around.
There have always been New Year's demons to exorcise. Ancient cultures were convinced that as the old year weakened and died, evil spirits grew stronger and more dangerous. For safety's sake, the old year had to be hastened along and the demons driven off: Noise helped: shouts, drums, cymbals, gongs, whistles and, later, church bells, gunpowder, and firecrackers. So did fire. On the last day of the year, fires were extinguished and then rekindled the next morning from a new, holy flame. The Creek Indians simply burned everything — clothes, furniture, uneaten corn from the previous year — and started over.
It's always seemed a perfect time to settle old scores. In any number of cultures, all outstanding debts had to be paid and all borrowed items returned on the last day of the year. The Iroquois cleaned their slates more dramatically. At year's end, men and women disguised themselves and proceeded to run amok through the village, invading wigwams, smashing whatever came to hand; throwing ice water, dirt, and hot ashes on anyone who had offended them during the last 12 months. It was generally assumed that people were out of their senses during this time and thus not responsible for their actions. The general lunacy was followed by a general confession of sins, no doubt appropriate.
Sensible people have always resolved to make the next year better. An old and tenacious belief is that the first day sets the pattern for the next 364 and thus had better go well. On this one day, the Romans suspended all litigation and settled out of court. The Germans feasted as hugely, and dressed as richly, as possible, in order to give the appearance of people upon whom good fortune was about to descend. Americans were careful. In prudent households, new calendars were not hung until sunup on January 1. No clothes were washed, lest a year of hard work follow. Visitors were invited, for a great many brought great good fortune — unless the first happened to be a woman, and then a year of bad luck followed hard upon her heels. For some reason, it was lucky to borrow salt. (Of course, a considerate woman sent husband or son for it, especially early in the day.)
Traditionally, joy in the year's rebirth has brought gifts, visitors, and food. The gift-giving tradition began with exchanges of good luck tokens: boughs of sacred trees (Romans and Druids); eggs, the symbols of fertility (Persians); gloves or pins — or, in their stead, "glove money" or "pin money" (British). In America, the English colonists continued to exchange presents on New Year's Day until, under Dutch and German influence, Christmas became the great gift-giving occasion.
Paying visits is perhaps the oldest and best established New Year's custom. Romans, Europeans, Americans — all have celebrated the new year by renewing ties and settling differences with family and friends. It seems appropriate. When embarking upon an unpredictable and possibly dangerous journey, one should gather one's fellow travelers about, for a mutual "bon voyage."
Of course, they all have to be fed. And if the feast is to be consistent with 40 centuries of tradition, it will allow the dejected to chase their demons, the newly perfect to sustain their illusions, and the jubilant to express their joy. Quite a strain on hospitality.
Modern technology helps. In the great New Year's tradition of bombast and fireworks, television offers 12 hours of parades and football: the perfect staging for an open house.
Drop by, one can say to a dozen or so friends and relatives, anytime after 1:00.
We'll have a little desultory conversation about the passage of time and the meaning of life. We'll watch some television, compare the atrocities of parade commentators and quarterbacks. We'll drink a little fresh orange juice — either straight and pure, if that's the way we're feeling, or mixed half-and-half with champagne, if we need a little comfort. Later, we'll wander over to the buffet table. Football, friends, food — sample at will.
The accompanying menu allows guests to forage according to their moods. The seasonally depressed can head straight for the glazed ham, potato salad, and apple cake. The resolute can dine lean and mean on salmon mousse, spinach salad, and fruit.
And those just happy to be alive? They'll take care of themselves. They'll eat anything they like.