“Gather round, everyone. Can you all see?!”
The dozen or so of us all squeezed into the vestibule at the top of the third flight of stairs, outside the door to our office. Our managing director made her way to the front of the pack, pineapple in hand. As we all peered on, she dropped it to the floor and rolled it across the threshold into the office.
It was Chinese New Year 2014, and we’d just completed the Singaporean tradition of the pineapple roll.
The thing about experiencing a new ritual as an adult is you often see it with the eyes of a child, with an acceptance that belies your experience: on that day, in the hazy early-February heat, I didn’t question the act: but of course we roll a pineapple. Why not?
That said, I’ve always been fascinated by tradition. Once I’ve experienced it, I’ve gotten curious about it: Why do we do the things we do? What do they mean? Where do these rituals come from?
Luckily for me, as I lived outside of the US for over a decade and traveled a ton, I got to experience a lot of new rituals. I’ve celebrated the new year (of the Gregorian, Chinese, and Hindu varieties) in the US, Europe, Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
This year, I got to wondering, what can we learn from all of the various new year’s traditions around the world? So, besides my own experiences, I asked my friends, a diverse and well-traveled bunch, what they’d experienced in their home countries or in their travels.
Besides the near-ubiquitous nature of fireworks (including some hair-raising, awfully-close-for-comfort backyard-pyrotechnics in both Delhi and Copenhagen), here are the types of traditions I found:
Rituals that cleanse
While for most of us, the new year is a chance for rebirth, some cultures drive the point home more deliberately. Cubans dump a bucket of dirty water out to wash away the bad things from the previous year, and Colombians thoroughly clean the house on the final day of the year to discard all negative thoughts and bad memories.
Rituals that ward off difficulties
While our southern neighbors are cleansing the past, the Danes literally jump into the new year (usually off a couch at the strike of midnight), in a move designed to defeat any oncoming difficulties and hardships awaiting in the new year.
Rituals that bestow wealth and good fortune
Though the above rituals focus on steering around difficulties, most of the rituals I encountered focused on bestowing general or specific good fortune:
In the south of the U.S., on the first day of the year, revelers eat a meal of collard greens, black eyed peas, and cornbread for wealth, while to the north in Finland, locals melt a horseshoe and cast it in a bucket of cold water. They predict the new year’s fortunes from the shapes or the shadows the shapes cast as it reacts to the water.
And in southern climes like Colombia and Cuba, eating 12 grapes within the 12 dongs of the midnight clock is thought to secure the granting of 12 wishes. In Colombia itself, residents buy and wear new underwear to see in the new year, in order to guarantee a year of love and happiness.
In Singapore for Chinese New Year, we followed the cantonese tradition of “lo hei,” or “tossing up good fortune,” by mixing a fish salad. The higher we tossed the ingredients, the better our fortune that year was said to be. Specific ingredients were added to encourage various flavors of wealth and prosperity.
What strikes me most about all of the above is the absence of tangible goal-setting or behavior change present in new year’s resolutions. Instead, the rituals focus on a general cleanse and intention setting, placing the burden of delivery into the hands of the ether: in melting tin, in grapes, in cornbread, fish salad, or perhaps in the gods.
Juxtaposed against new year’s resolutions that can feel more like burdens, this feels like an infinitely kinder and gentler way to dip into the new year.
Speaking of gentle, I finally learned what the Singaporean pineapple ritual beckons: as pineapples are symbols of prosperity in Singapore, this ritual is intended to roll good luck and prosperity into the home (or, in our case, office).
So, this year, instead of creating a list of resolutions (which I can predict, without nary a melted-tin horseshoe, are bound to bring feelings of guilt and self-loathing), perhaps take a cue from the ancient traditions above: collect some grapes, a pineapple, or a broom, and use your sparkling house or your kitchen table to court good fortune.
With thanks to Kerri Rusnak, Mie Soerensen, Elizabeth Eilert Grewal, Tracy DeLuca, Annie Valdes, Katja Battarbee, and Judy Lee for contributions, and to my fellow Lo-Hei revelers, Lindsey Zouein, Anke Liebnitz, and Ben Forman.