Moments before the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve, Lara Turgay and her sister will run to the bathroom with new red underwear...
NEW YORK — Moments before the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, Lara Turgay and her sister will run to the bathroom with new red underwear in hand, just as they’ve done most years since they were teenagers in Turkey.
“You want to welcome the new year wearing your new underwear,” said Turgay, who owns a cafe in Washington, D.C. “It’s a tradition in Turkey.”
For many Americans, New Year’s Eve rituals are as familiar as childhood lullabies: watch the ball drop on TV, toast with champagne, promise this will be the year you finally get in shape.
But some people avoid all that, choosing to welcome the new year with traditions of their own.
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Misha Bittleston, a Brooklyn artist, grew up in England celebrating the New Year the way his father’s German ancestors often did: with molten lead.
On Dec. 31, Bittleston and the other children gathered around the stovetop and placed chunks of lead into a pot of boiling water.
The lead melted easily, turning into bizarre shapes, and there lies the fun: You can learn what the coming year has in store for you by what you see in the misshapen lead.
“If it looks like a dragon, maybe you’ll see a dragon or be a dragon in a play,” Bittleston said. “If it looked like a house, maybe we’d move into a new house.”
Lead-pouring is still done as a New Year’s ritual in Germany. But the small Brooklyn apartment where Bittleston now lives isn’t conducive to pouring lead, so he has modified the tradition to keep it alive. Now on New Year’s Eve, he makes abstract paintings by splattering ink on paper.
“I make 12 paintings so I know what each month will bring,” he said. “It’s not that I really believe it anymore. I like the continuity of it — it’s part of my family.”
Barbara Bizou, author of “The Joy of Ritual,” says traditions are important ways to connect with our past and to take stock of the present.
“We have an innate need to honor and celebrate different occasions of our life, and we don’t always get the chance to do it,” she said. “New Year’s represents a fresh start.”
Bizou’s New Year’s tradition involves throwing money inside her apartment the first time she comes home in the new year.
“I leave it there for a day and then I collect it and put in a jar and give it away,” she said. “It means that this will be a financially abundant year — and it’s fun.”
New Year’s rituals often involve surveying the past year to go into the new one with fresh eyes.
Cheri Sicard, an editor in California, has begun a tradition among her friends that has caught on like wildfire, or, to be more precise, like a sacrificial fire. Every year she hosts an effigy party where people bring homemade dolls representing something, or someone, they want to be rid of in the new year.
“It could be debt, excess weight, an ex-husband,” said Sicard, editor of Fabulousfoods.com. One by one, the guests throw their dolls into the fire, watching the flames consume their bad habits.
Last year, Sicard was suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome and she made a doll with enormous splotchy hands to symbolize her pain. She burned the doll and the pain cleared up.
Some people treat the effigies lightheartedly, but others take the ritual seriously. One year, a friend of Sicard’s who had just left a high-powered job burned his business cards and other office flotsam to mark his new beginning.
One tip from Sicard: make the dolls with natural ingredients. “Nothing ruins a party like the smell of noxious fumes,” she said.
Many New Year’s traditions center on food.
Across the South, black-eyed peas are a New Year’s staple. “Each pea has an eye in it and there’s a sense of looking into the future and bringing good luck to people who eat them,” said William Ferris, a professor at the University of North Carolina and co-editor of the “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.” The good-luck ritual includes shelling the peas and throwing the husks in the road, he said.
This year, like every other, Ferris will be eating black-eyed peas at his mother’s farm in Mississippi, where he and about 20 relatives always gather.
Sonia Martinez, 69, is a sponge for New Year’s traditions. She was born in Cuba, lived all over the American South — she too will be eating black-eyed peas on Jan. 1 — and now lives in Hawaii. She’s picked up new rituals at each stop.
Just like her Cuban grandmother, Martinez spends the day before the new year scrubbing every inch of her house clean. She also keeps a bucket of water at the front door that she throws outside just before midnight.
“It signifies throwing out all the bad from the past year and starting the new year clean,” she said.
Moments later, as the clock strikes 12, Martinez and all her guests eat 12 grapes for good luck. It’s an old tradition apparently begun in Spain but now practiced throughout much of the Caribbean and Spanish-speaking world.
Living in Hawaii, Martinez has also picked up some Japanese traditions, like collecting blank-eyed daruma dolls. You make a New Year’s wish and paint in one eye; if the wish is granted later in the year, you paint in the other one.
“We borrow and share,” Martinez said. “Some habits are supposed to bring good luck, others are just tradition. It’s a way of appreciating other cultures and the world all around you.”