One of the biggest New Year’s traditions is entering your friends in a lottery by sending them special nengajo greeting cards printed by the post office. This year it moves to the Internet. Sort of. You’re not gonna make any of your friends a millionaire, and the prizes come from the site’s eight sponsors, like Kentucky Fried Chicken. At any rate, it’s a new way to use the Web and it’ll keep you from having to transcribe all the addresses in your little black book. Japanese-language only.
And then there’s osechi ryori, precooked meals served during the first three days of the year. They consist of grilled, boiled and vinegared foods stacked in three-tier lacquer boxes. The reason you’re not familiar with osechi ryori is it tastes awful. Really awful. So awful no one bothers to prepare it anymore (but old people buy it at department and convenience stores). Recipes, however, do still exist in the deepest reaches of the Internet, like Yasuko-san’s site, which also gives descriptions of each dish and its symbolism. (Disclaimer: Some people actually like this stuff.)
Here’s an explanation why the end of the year is just as meaningful as the new year in Japan — and why, perhaps, the period is often translated as the yearend holidays rather than the New Year’s holidays. It’s cultural. This is a thorough guide to the paegentry and rituals surrounding the expiration of one calendar and the beginning of another. Also find out what all those decorations are suddenly going on sale in every neighborhood and about to be adorning everything from doorways to fenders.
Hopping John started hundreds of years ago among slaves somewhere in the Caribbean, spread like wildfire to what is now the U.S. Deep South, mutating at every relay point but somehow managing to keep its distinctive flavor. Now Hopping John — a soup of black-eyed peas, pork and rice — is a New Year’s tradition for a passionate few who make it their first meal of the year in the hope it will bring them good luck over the following 364 days. This URL brings you a story about how slaves were brought to the New World and how they were treated and fed, a story the author believes helps explain why the survivors of these journeys gained a taste for the dish.
In Greece, the New Year is ushered in by serving vassilopitta, St. Basil’s cake. Included in the ingredients is a coin. Tradition has it that the head of the household “carves” the cake and serves it to friends and family just before midnight. Good fortune, the custom goes, guides the one who finds the coin through the coming year. As long as he doesn’t spend it. Or bite into it. The cake — more of a sweetbread with citrus subtleties — comes from a recipe of another time when people weren’t so impatient in the kitchen. One look at it will give you newfound respect for your Greek in-laws.
Now here’s a tradition. It’s called bleigiessen and it’s a kind of New Year’s fortunetelling. It might also be a kind of Rorschach test. All you need is a candle, a spoon, small pieces of lead and a bucket of cold water. The idea is to melt the lead in the spoon over the candle and then quickly pour the molten into the water. Your friends and family then examine the hardened lead — either the piece itself or the shadow it casts when held up to a light — until they “see” a shape. In Germany, kits come with a list of possible shapes and what they foretell for the coming year. But you can check out this site. And believe it or not, Germans are actually sober when they carry out this tradition. At least that’s what they say.
I know, I know. Chinese New Year’s isn’t until Jan. 24. I’m including this URL for those of you who couldn’t find any suitable lead pellets at Family Mart but still want your fortune told. Like the Germans, the Chinese also like to predict what the coming year might bring. Their divination tools — kua chime — are a bundle of sticks and they’re the oldest known form of fortunetelling in the world. Here’s a virtual adaptation anyone can try.
If I’ve missed a few cultures, I apologize and ask the offended to surf on over to New Year’s Day, which explains ancient traditions, modern traditions, religious traditions, Celtic traditions, Western traditions, Asian traditions — every tradition that has sprung out of New Year’s. And although the entries are all insightful, they’re also concise. They go down like a piece of St. Basil’s cake.
Because you’re out of ideas and “Here’s to the Second American Century!” is unacceptable, study these guidelines of the ancient art of toasting before sitting down to write yours.