Thanksgiving means turkey and dressing, and Christmas means ornaments and gifts, but if you think New Year's Day is stuck with headaches and hangovers, you're selling the day short. Perhaps no other holiday has been associated with a wider array of customs.
For my father, the day was a college football fest, from early morning to late night. Back in the day, when the Cotton Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl all were played on Jan. 1, he'd spend his waking hours staring into our 27-inch Admiral console as if caught in a gypsy's trance.
On those occasions when two games were aired on different channels at overlapping times, he'd wheel in a second TV and place them side-by-side. He even did this one year when he was running a temperature and battling pneumonia. He timed his sneezes to coincide with commercials.
For some people, the New Year means a fresh start. They resolve to lose weight, eat healthier and better manage their time, unless they're running late and have to slam down a Big Mac while driving to an appointment. They resolve to quit cursing, drinking and smoking until they become agitated, thirsty and need a cigarette.
Resolutions never work, but they are part of the tradition.
For me, New Year's Day means the Christmas lights come down. This is family protocol, rigidly enforced by a higher authority in the household chain of command.
I don't make the rules. I just follow them. Lights can go up on Thanksgiving. They come down by Jan. 1. No exceptions, no extensions. Librarians are more forgiving about overdue books.
Throughout mankind's history, the New Year has generated all manner of beliefs and superstitions.
According to infallibly reliable sources at snopes.com, we first began kissing our loved ones at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve to ensure that our affections would continue through the next 12 months, although the divorce rate suggests the practice may not work. We are said to have started welcoming the New Year with loud noises to scares away evil spirits. Overindulgence in liquid spirits may also have something to do with it.
A quick Web search finds that different countries have different ways of ringing in the new calendar.
Japanese celebrants are said to hold Bonenkai (forget-the-year) parties, in which they bid farewell to the problems of the last year. The only way Americans could guarantee that happening is to replace every officeholder in Congress.
A Spanish ritual is to eat 12 grapes to ensure 12 happy months ahead. They do the same thing in Napa, but they ferment them first.
A Netherlands custom involves lighting Christmas tree bonfires and setting off fireworks to purge the old and celebrate the new. The Dutch apparently don't have to worry about No Burn days.
In Greece, New Year's Day marks the Festival of St. Basil, at which a special cake (Vassilopitta) is served, with a silver or gold coin baked inside. Whoever finds the coin will be lucky that year, especially if they don't swallow it.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Besides, duty calls. It's time to retrieve the waving Santa Claus from the roof, gather the light strands and dismantle the illuminated reindeer. If I don't finish by nightfall, I can guarantee it won't be a Happy New Year.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org