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Jahn: Clowns, herring and other New Year's oddities

"Happy New Year. Enjoy your favorite customs, eat your fortune-bearing foods, and take your luck any way it comes," writes Eileen White Jahn. Photo Credit: M. Ryder

Is it me, or did 2012 seem particularly long?

It was a leap year, so it actually was particularly long. But still, with the divisive politics, the crippling weather and the tragic shootings this month, this is one year that we'll be glad to see end.

So how to best celebrate the turn of the calendar? We should look at customs from different parts of the world and country to help. For instance, perhaps in 2013 we should adapt the Japanese custom of throwing a good old bonenkai, known as a "forget-the-year" party.

Ecuadorians dress as clowns to welcome the new year with good humor and joy. We could certainly use a good laugh nowadays, but personally I find clowns kind of creepy. And 'round about midnight, after the Champagne has flowed long enough, the sight of a bunch of boozed-up bozos might be a bit much.

Since we can use all the luck we can get, it would behoove us to pay close attention to all the superstitions and traditions surrounding New Year's. In the South, the custom is to eat a dish called hoppin' John for a prosperous new year. Its main ingredients are black-eyed peas and ham hocks. I say good luck to anyone starting the new year with all those beans and grease. It will certainly get you hopping to the john.

The Northern Europeans favor eating pickled herring in cream to bring good fortune. Every year my husband buys a big jar of this revolting concoction. He torments the children with it and some gullible kid always caves in and gags down a bit. And gags it back up. I have observed no noticeable increase in the fortunes of each year's dupe.

I like the Spanish custom of eating 12 grapes at midnight, one for each month. But I've supersized and Americanized it a bit by changing the number of grapes to 365 for the days of the year -- 366 in 2012. And taking them in the fermented form.

Typically, custom demands a toast for luck in the new year. Unfortunately, too many people confuse that with getting toasted, and people who normally don't indulge tend to make up the vast majority of the inebriated. Hence, in some law-enforcement and emergency management circles, New Year's Eve is grimly referred to as "amateur night."

To battle this tendency, many cities have adopted a new, family-centered cultural event where local talent is featured and alcohol is banned. They call it "first night," which makes no sense, as it is actually the last night. But a New Year's Eve without booze is kind of antithetical too, so I guess that explains it.

In Scotland they have a "first footing." In the old days, you left the house after midnight and hoofed over the moor to your neighbors' cottage bearing a gift of coal for the fire. After all the mead and the grog consumed that night, though, they tended to get a little careless. After one too many kilts burst into flames, they switched the gift to shortbread instead.

We also have the Scots to thank for "auld lang syne," an expression that means "old long since," which kind of means times gone by. The song of the same name is said to be the most popular tune that no one knows the words to. And if they know them, they don't understand them. But it wouldn't be New Year's if the lyrics weren't mangled over a "cup of kindness yet, to auld lang syne."

And speaking of the British Isles, I have personally partaken in an Irish ringing in of the new year. We were visiting my cousins in Knock and took the kids, the youngest of whom was 6, to Carty's Pub for New Year's Eve. Yeah, you do that in Ireland.

It was a grand night with singing and toasting and telling jokes. The Irish are known for their sense of humor, but not so much their sense of time. All of a sudden a man shouted out, "Hey, it's five minutes after midnight!" The band leader cried, "So 'tis" and commenced the countdown: "Ten, nine, eight . . . "

Of course you can't ring in the new year without your resolutions. They say that the ancient Babylonians started the custom of making resolutions almost 4,000 years ago, and we've been breaking them ever since. Nowadays we tend to resolve to lose weight or stop smoking. You have to wonder what the ancients resolved to do. Weed the Hanging Gardens? Finish the Tower of Babel?

However you plan to ring out the old and ring in the new I will offer you this time-honored wish: May the best of the old be the worst of the new. Though I try not to say that out loud because, after a glass of Champagne, it's too easy to mix it up.

So Happy New Year. Enjoy your favorite customs, eat your fortune-bearing foods, and take your luck any way it comes. And don't forget to send in the clowns . . . I'll drink to that!

Eileen White Jahn chairs the business administration department at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue.