Monday, January 3, 2011

On Tradition (Or, Tevya had the right idea)

As a fourth-generation American whose ancestors hailed from different parts of Europe, I grew up with no unique New Year's Eve traditions. Then in my twenties, I was fortunate to live in two foreign countries where New Year's traditions and superstitions ran rampant. Those traditions were charming and fun, but of another world.

Fast forward about fifteen years to 2009, when I invited some dear Latin friends over for New Year's Eve. At 11:30pm, panic set in when they realized we didn't have El Viejo to burn at the stroke of midnight. To appease the frantic guests, the three men set to work digging through our recycling bins and stored boxes in the garage to fashion our very own effigy that stood about eighteen inches tall. While the men worked, the women gathered the kids to put into action MY idea of incorporating a burning ceremony. This involved writing down our negative thoughts or bad events of the year and stuffing the small notes into El Viejo so they'd burn up and disappear with the passing of the year. Everyone got into this, and we scurried during the last five minutes of 2009 to shove our folded papers inside El Viejo's head before midnight.

We brought El Viejo out front and planted him in the middle of the cul-de-sac, safe from grass, bushes, cars, or anything else that might catch fire if our effigy turned into the bonfire we hoped it would. At eighteen inches tall, however, El Viejo wasn't quite the spectacle we'd hoped he'd be. We loaded him with fireworks and watched him snap, crackle, and pop with about as much gusto as a bowl of Rice Krispies. Still, it was cathartic to watch him burn, taking our negativity with him.

I loved this Latin tradition (which also reminded me of the Italian version, called Il Vecchio), so to send off 2010, we got smarter. With the same Latin couple in house in addition to other guests, we constructed a taller, greater, more formidable Old Man who stood about three feet tall and had plenty of room in his belly for our burning notes. We also bought lighter fluid and doused the guy so he'd burn baby burn, like a disco inferno. And that he did.

Adding to El Viejo, we ate our 12 grapes at midnight and stood in the cul-de-sac counting the $100 of cash our Latin friends passed around, but only after my husband and I first ran up to our bedroom to dig through drawers searching for something red to wear since we certainly did not have yellow underwear. (Apparently, you're supposed to wear yellow underwear and something red. Next year, we'll be better prepared in the undergarment department, I swear it.) The only thing we didn't do was pack our suitcases and walk around the block to ensure a year of travel, but I'll be damned if I don't make that happen anyway.

In all the rush of El Viejo, the grapes, and the cash counting, we forgot to drink champagne, but since I am not one to snuff old traditions for new ones, I quickly poured everyone a glass. As we raised our flutes in toast, I thought of Tevya, from Fiddler on the Roof, who sang of the value of preserving tradition. I knew how lucky I was to have my family and my dear friends by my side as we made these new traditions our very own, and I toasted to 2011 with a Salud!, a L'Chayim!, and, of course, a Cheers!

Happy New Year to everyone. May 2011 bring you health, joy, success, and an open heart to welcome any new traditions that might be hiding around the corner waiting for you to take them in!


  1. I LOVE these traditions!! I'm printing out this post so I can learn more and plan some of these for next year. I love the idea of putting negative notions in an effigy and burning it into the new year. Brilliant! Thanks so much for sharing these.

    Happy New Year, sweet friend!

    I love how your signature turned out :))
    ((hugs)) Nicole

  2. I haven't heard anyone talk about El Viejo in a long time. I didn't know about the yellow underwear though. (or at least, I don't remember it.) That was new to me.

    Thanks for trip down memory lane.

  3. My Mum used to have the old Scottish tradition of the first footer bringing coal, salt and bread.

    We watched Inception then had an early night instead!

  4. And I just sat on the couch watching a movie and writing. What was I thinking?

    I gotta say the yellow underwear CRACKS ME UP! So many jokes lurking there that I promise not to utter.

    Great traditions here! I learned about the grapes (don't laugh) from Sesame Street's New Year tape my kids watched a gazillion times.