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The Garden Gate: Welcome the new year the old way

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By Ellen Probert Williamson
Every January tradition impels us to ring in the new year with fanfare, parties and resolutions. But different cultures and religions along the way have celebrated new year’s in different ways, as well as at various times during the year.

There is something exciting about the prospect of a new year ahead with all its questions still to be answered.

Holiday decorations suddenly look tawdry and cluttered after New Year’s Day is past, so we put them away for another year. Our surroundings then take on an oddly clean, austere look that is somehow pleasing.

The celebration of the new year as we know it on Jan. 1 takes place under the Gregorian calendar. The Chinese new year is based on the lunar calendar and is celebrated with parades and fireworks.

During the Middle Ages people used the Julian calendar, so the new year was celebrated on Annunciation Day, March 25.

Ancient Persians exchanged gifts of eggs, symbolizing great productiveness.

The Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, which is Hebrew for beginning of the year, is celebrated on the first and second days of the Jewish month of Tishri, which occurs either in September or October.

In ancient Egypt the new year was celebrated when the Nile River flooded, generally at the end of September, and was marked by singing, dancing and feasting.

In Scotland the new year is called Hogmanay, and barrels of tar set ablaze are rolled down the streets, symbolizing the burning up of the old year.

The idea of the baby new year dates back to about 600 B.C., when ancient Greeks would carry a baby around at the start of the new year. This was to honor Dionysys, the God of Fertility, and to symbolize rebirth.

The dropping of the crystal ball in New York’s Times Square has become an annual modern tradition. The first one took place in 1907; the ball weighed 700 pounds and was made of metal, wood and 100-watt light bulbs.

The greatest winter festival in ancient times was the Saturnalia, or the Feast of the Winter solstice. Originally celebrated on just one day, it was in time extended to last for a week.

Schools were closed. Slaves were permitted to ridicule their masters, friends exchanged gifts and trees were decorated to encourage them to produce more fruit in the coming year. People exchanged gifts of evergreen branches to bring good luck.

Midwinter celebrations predate our observance of Christmas. The theory is that the December date was chosen because it would blend in with the Roman Saturnalia without attracting too much attention to the Christians, which would have been understandable then.

Perhaps the early church realized it was wise to be tolerant of customs which had been part of people’s lives for so long, especially their custom of adorning their homes with evergreens. Transforming them from pagan to Christian seemed a natural progression.

One remarkable fact about the use of evergreens at Christmas is that Christmas greens were somehow sacred and could not be thrown away after the holidays were over but had to
be dealt with in a special way.

Holly was to be given to cattle, because cattle were thought to have been present at Christ’s birth.

Other greens were to be burned in the fireplace with the yule log, but mistletoe must be carefully saved until next year when it could be replaced with new branches.

Rosemary was made into potpourri and kept in a jar to scent the room and keep the promise that anyone who sniffed it would never grow old. Rosemary was once the choicest decoration of all and in the 14th century was sent to the queen as a gift.

Before you discard your Christmas tree, you might clip off the needles and stuff a small pillow with them. There is an old belief that a pine pillow is a sure cure for insomnia, and it will give a fragrant touch to any room.

In Victorian times, New Year’s Day was a popular day for weddings, perhaps because the idea of a new year and the beginning of a new life together held great appeal for the happy couple.

Flowers were always used for decoration. New Year’s was the day for gift giv-
ing, too. Christmas Day
was reserved for church
and feasting, and New Year’s was a day of open-house parties, receptions and gift giving.

During these parties women provided elaborate refreshments and usually a lavish bar. Men, usually in groups, went house to house calling on their women friends.

The women vied with one another to decorate their homes for their New Year’s receptions and flowers. Greens and candles played a large part.

Garlands of ivy and evergreens were often used as swags around picture frames and moldings around doorways.

Arrangements of fruit and greens adorned mantels. The pineapple, symbol of hospitality, was often included.

Sometimes, long festoons of greenery were draped from the central chandelier to the corners of the room. Holly adorned the punch bowl, and mistletoe was hung in convenient places to add to the excitement of the occasion.

Gifts considered suitable for a young lady often included a bouquet holder of silver or ivory shaped like an ice cream cone and designed to hold a posy of flowers. They are now collector items.

The Cree Indians say, “Nothing new is the way it looks. This is the time of year when the world changes, and the earth is reborn.”

Happy New Year!

• • •

Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.