By Dennis Nichols
Here’s something to think about! Our 365-day year peaks with church-going and merry-making on December 31, just before it fades into history. And it reinvents itself one second after midnight on January 1,, smack in the middle of the 12 days of Christmas.
We accept and carry on the tradition of welcoming the new year – a custom humans have lived with for some 4000 years. We evoke old Father Time, scythe and hourglass in hand accompanied by the New Year‘s baby, yielding to the passage of the ages. It’s pagan, and many of us know it. Christian and secular scholars tell us so, but what do we care – isn’t it the spirit of the season that counts? Yes it is, even as we celebrate the end of a 12-month year in what was originally a ten-month period when January didn’t even exist.
We can say that we inherited the Old Year’s/New Year’s celebration custom from our European colonial ‘masters’. On the strength of tradition and to the extent that we’ve made it a part of our culture, it’s a vital dynamic of who we are as a people – an unwritten code which most of us accept as something good and proper (or ‘fit and proper’) as the year winds down. The whole Christmas season, extending for some to January 5, or Twelfth Night, is about peace and goodwill, initially heralded by Jesus’ birth. We take stock of our lives, clean up, redecorate, redirect our energies, throw out old furniture, perceptions, and prejudices, and pledge a renewal of effort towards betterment.
But the pagan paraphernalia persists alongside the Jesus theme into the new year. That innocuous-looking reaper, for example, was said to originally represent the Roman god, Saturn, who castrated his father, Uranus, with a scythe-like implement, later representing the unrelenting flow of time which in the end ‘cuts down’ all things – a reality we live with daily. But the bright and brand-new baby signifies rebirth and regeneration. Together they’re a metaphor for the perpetuation of life, and change. The New Year babe ages rapidly through the ravages and ups and downs of another 365 days (especially in Guyana?) to become the old man with the scythe emptying his hourglass on December 31, before he crumbles and fades into oblivion.
Other New Year’s Eve traditions unfamiliar to us include Hogmanay in Scotland, in which people create fireballs of flammable material encased in chicken wire which they swing around their heads, and burning scarecrow effigies in Ecuador to remove bad karma, while in Belgium and Romania farmers take pride in wishing their cows and other cattle good luck in the coming year. (In Guyana we scare and terrify our animals with squibs and firecrackers) And all around the world, couples kiss at midnight, some say for good luck and to ward off evil spirits; others say as prelude to some New Year’s rantum-scantum, an antiquated term for uninhibited sex.
In merry old England, a certain midwife, tongue-in-cheek, is begging couples to refrain from such end-of-year behaviour, as come next September, there’s a spike in baby births that overwhelms her. The phenomenon is actually a real one according to research. After the champagne cork pops, and the fireworks explode, human nature follows its natural inclination. Nine months later, boom!
Interestingly, as alluded to earlier, the new year did not always begin on January 1, or even in January. It began in March, and in the northern climes where the celebrations first started, it would seem more logical as that month heralded the return of Spring with its symbolism of rebirth. After all, late December was the middle of winter.
In ancient Mesopotamia, the new year was said to have begun around mid-March, and the early Roman calendar showed March 1 as the first day of the year. That’s how we got the last four months of a ten-month calendar year as September, October, November and December, after the Latin for seven, eight, nine, and ten. (septem, octo, novem and decem) January and February were later added as an afterthought.
There is some controversy over how January 1 came to be the first day of the new year, but it apparently originated in Rome sometime around 153 BC. Then about 46 BC when the old lunar-based calendar was replaced by a more accurate solar-based one, that date was officially decreed by Julius Caesar as the new year. In spite of this, its date varied at different times and in different places. Even after 1582 when the Gregorian calendar marked January 1 as New Year’s Day, Protestant nations were slow to adopt it. Until as recently as 1752, the British Empire and its American colonies celebrated the new year in March. Now, with a few exceptions, January 1 reigns.
In our country, most of the elements of a traditional Guyanese Christmas cohere and culminate on December 31. The day, and particularly the night, are unique in that more than any other, they illustrate a truth – that despite our cultural and individual differences, as a people we all celebrate in the spirit of the season – Amerindian, East Indian, Black, Chinese, Portuguese, and the ever-growing Mixed ‘race’. Look at our dishes throughout the year – more expansive, expressive and gloriously intercultural at Christmas – rum, ginger beer, sorrel, and an array of wines and beverages to wash down the black cake, pepperpot, fried rice, garlic pork, duck curry, and of course our richly-textured cook-up rice simmering to the strains of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ on Old Year’s Night. (which I still prefer to the foreign New Year’s Eve)
Take note that all the dishes and beverages mentioned above can be made with local produce, stirring in us a subliminal sense of national pride, though of course some still hanker after the foreign stuff – apples, grapes, walnuts, and Scotch whiskey.
It’s good to see around the municipal marketplaces people shopping for local fare; greens and ground provisions, local meats, spices, and beverages are holding their own against foreign competition. Clothes, along with accessories, are the exception as local tailors and seamstresses have to compete with the more exotic apparel from the USA, China and elsewhere. (Hair and hairstyles need a whole category by themselves) But whether local or foreign, all of the above are utilised to suit a unique Guyanese persona that is still emerging, 51 years after independence.
As the old year rolls out, we’re caught up in a mixture of reverence and abandon; church-going and partying, still swayed by the intoxicating ‘spirit of the season’ to pay homage to what is both an intangible and a palpable reality.
The ‘Auld Lang Syne’ warmth and goodwill we generate are real, and infectious. Old friends are remembered and old transgressions forgiven or forgotten, at least for the time being. Shiny objects and a profusion of colour still bedeck store windows and city streets as the frenzied shopping, which waned over the past week, picks up again. The masqueraders are still out there, and shoppers are making that one last almighty effort to gear up for an unforgettable Old Year’s Night outing. After a year of sugar woes, oily manoeuvres, and political posturing, we deserve it.
Happy New Year!
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