Happy New Year!

This is my annual reprise of an FmH New Year’s Day post from years past:

Years ago, the Boston Globe ran a January 1st article compiling folkloric beliefs about what to do, what to eat, etc. on New Year’s Day to bring good fortune for the year to come. I’ve regretted since — I usually think of it around once a year (grin) — not clipping out and saving the article; especially since we’ve had children, I’m interested in enduring traditions that go beyond getting drunk [although some comment that this is a profound enactment of the interdigitation of chaos and order appropriate to the New Year’s celebration — FmH], watching the bowl games and making resolutions. A web search brought me this, less elaborate than what I recall from the Globe but to the same point:

[Image 'oro1.jpg' cannot be displayed]“Traditionally, it was thought that one could affect the luck they would have throughout the coming year by what they did or ate on the first day of the year. For that reason, it has become common for folks to celebrate the first few minutes of a brand new year in the company of family and friends. Parties often last into the middle of the night after the ringing in of a new year. It was once believed that the first visitor on New Year’s Day would bring either good luck or bad luck the rest of the year. It was particularly lucky if that visitor happened to be a tall dark-haired man.

“Traditional New Year foods are also thought to bring luck. Many cultures believe that anything in the shape of a ring is good luck, because it symbolizes “coming full circle,” completing a year’s cycle. For that reason, the Dutch believe that eating donuts on New Year’s Day will bring good fortune.

“Many parts of the U.S. celebrate the new year by consuming black-eyed peas. These legumes are typically accompanied by either hog jowls or ham. Black-eyed peas and other legumes have been considered good luck in many cultures. The hog, and thus its meat, is considered lucky because it symbolizes prosperity. Cabbage is another ‘good luck’ vegetable that is consumed on New Year’s Day by many. Cabbage leaves are also considered a sign of prosperity, being representative of paper currency. In some regions, rice is a lucky food that is eaten on New Year’s Day.”

The further north one travels in the British Isles, the more the year-end festivities focus on New Year’s. The Scottish observance of Hogmanay has many elements of warming heart and hearth, welcoming strangers and making a good beginning:

“Three cornered biscuits called hogmanays are eaten. Other special foods are: wine, ginger cordial, cheese, bread, shortbread, oatcake, carol or carl cake, currant loaf, and a pastry called scones. After sunset people collect juniper and water to purify the home. Divining rituals are done according to the directions of the winds, which are assigned their own colors. First Footing:The first person who comes to the door on midnight New Year’s Eve should be a dark-haired or dark-complected man with gifts for luck. Seeing a cat, dog, woman, red-head or beggar is unlucky. The person brings a gift (handsel) of coal or whiskey to ensure prosperity in the New Year. Mummer’s Plays are also performed. The actors called the White Boys of Yule are all dressed in white, except for one dressed as the devil in black. It is bad luck to engage in marriage proposals, break glass, spin flax, sweep or carry out rubbish on New Year’s Eve.”

Here’s why we clink our glasses when we drink our New Year’s toasts, no matter where we are. Of course, sometimes the midnight cacophony is louder than just clinking glassware, to create a ‘devil-chasing din’.

In Georgia, eat black eyed peas and turnip greens on New Year’s Day for luck and prosperity in the year to come, supposedly because they symbolize coppers and currency. Hoppin’ John, a concoction of peas, onion, bacon and rice, is also a southern New Year’s tradition, as is wearing yellow to find true love (in Peru, yellow underwear, apparently!) or carrying silver for prosperity. In some instances, a dollar bill is thrown in with the other ingredients of the New Year’s meal to bring prosperity. A similar New Year’s meal in Norway also includes dried cod, “lutefisk.” The Pennsylvania Dutch make sure to include sauerkraut in their holiday meal, also for prosperity.

In Spain, you would cram twelve grapes in your mouth at midnight, one each time the clock chimed, for good luck for the twelve months to come. The U. S. version of this custom, for some reason, involves standing on a chair as you pop the grapes. In Denmark, jumping off a chair at the stroke of midnight signifies leaping into the New Year. In Rio, you would be plunging into the sea en masse at midnight, wearing white and bearing offerings.

In China, papercuttings of red paper are hung in the windows to scare away evil spirits who might enter the house and bring misfortune.

Elsewhere: pancakes for the New Year’s breakfast in France; banging on friends’ doors in Denmark to “smash in” the New Year; going in the front door and out the back door at midnight in Ireland; making sure the first person through your door in the New Year in Scotland is a tall dark haired visitor. Water out the window at midnight in Puerto Rico rids the home of evil spirits. Cleanse your soul in Japan at the New Year by listening to a gong tolling 108 times, one for every sin. It is Swiss good luck to let a drop of cream fall on the floor on New Year’s Day.

However you’re going to celebrate, my warmest wishes for the year to come!

Mass burials do more harm than good: experts

“Irrational fears of epidemics have led to the unnecessary burial of …victims in mass graves, adding to survivors’ trauma and wasting precious resources, health and disaster experts said…

But health workers said it was a myth that dead bodies constituted an acute health risk after earthquakes.

‘As far as public health professionals have been able to determine, this concern has never been substantiated,’ Steven Rottman, director of the UCLA Center for Public Health and Disasters, told AlertNet.

Rottman said no scientific evidence existed that bodies of disaster victims increased the risk of epidemics, adding that cadavers in fact posed less risk of contagion than living people.

…’Indiscriminate burial demoralises the survivors and can lead them to be deprived of transferable pension benefits through failure to provide death certificates for pension holders,’ said David Alexander, a specialist in disasters and currently scientific director at the Scuola Superiore di Protezione Civile in Lombardy, Italy.” (ReliefNet via Polymorphously Perverse)

Has anyone read Mary Douglas’ classic, Purity and Danger? It is a treatise on the ways in which what is considered impure or contaminated is socially determined. The boundaries between purity and impurity serve symbolic purposes to maintain social order and coherency. The uncleanliness of the corpse is one of those things. The assertion after every mass disaster about needing to bury the dead rapidly to avoid disease is so automatic and unquestioned that it has always seemed to me that the public health need it meets is more likely in the emotional realm than the infectious disease one.

Tsunami Relief

Google has established a page of links to agencies providing disaster relief in the wake of the tsunami. There is a link to it front and center on their search page, if you haven’t already noticed. Rumor has it they have already raised $5 million from putting up this page. In general, online giving to tsunami relief has been of an unprecedented magnitude, far outstripping donations after 9-11 for example. People need to realize that the devastated areas will have relief needs for years to come, so give much but give often.

Parachuting to Titan

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‘Get ready for two of the strangest hours in the history of space exploration.

Two hours. That’s how long it will take the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe to parachute to the surface of Titan on January 14th. Descending through thick orange clouds, Huygens will taste Titan’s atmosphere, measure its wind and rain, listen for alien sounds and, when the clouds part, start taking pictures.

see captionNo one knows what the photos will reveal. Icy mountains? Liquid methane seas? Hot lightning? “It’s anyone’s guess,” says Jonathan Lunine, a professor of planetary science at the University of Arizona and a member of the Huygens science team. “We might not even understand what we see, not immediately.”‘ (NASA)

A ‘precious’ case

This ingenious article from the British Medical Journal is a formal case presentation, such as we write as a matter of course in medicine, of Gollum, discussing the differential diagnosis — psychiatric or medical? — of his behavioral disturbance. As it is a collaboration by a number of medical students and a lecturer from the Department of Mental Health Sciences of the Royal Free and University College Medical School in London, you can predict where their conclusions will lie.