customs/rituals, folklore, food, good luck/bad luck, holidays

How to Manifest Good Luck in the New Year

Southerners believe that eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day brings prosperity.  This is the same reason that Italians eat lentils on New Years.  Mexicans eat twelve grapes at midnight on New Year’s Eve.  Eating one grape for each bell brings good luck and good health for the ensuing twelve months.  At Jewish New Years participants eat apples with honey to ensure a sweet new year.

from left to right:  apples with honey; lentils; black-eyed peas; 12 grapes.  © Photo collection and text, Norine Dresser, 2013.
from left to right: apples with honey; lentils; black-eyed peas; 12 grapes. © Photo collection and text, Norine Dresser, 2013.

The Chinese display tangerines for good fortune based on the golden color of the fruit.  They give red envelopes with money inside to unmarried children and set off firecrackers to frighten away the evil spirits.  Similarly the Japanese shoot two arrows into the air on New Year’s Day to scare away the evil spirits that might be lurking in the heavens.

Chinese good luck symbols; tangerines; red envelopes with money inside; firecrackers.  © photo collection & text, 2013.
Chinese good luck symbols; tangerines; red envelopes with money inside; firecrackers. © photo collection & text, 2013.

An underlying belief is that acting in a particular way on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day predicts what will happen in the new year.  I had a student newly-arrived from China whose family was crushed when they found a flyer in their mailbox from a local funeral home on the first day of the Lunar New Year.  They worried all year that someone in their family might die.  Fortunately, that did not happen.

The Vietnamese believe that the first person to enter the house after Midnight on New Year’s Eve is an omen of what will happen for the rest of the twelve months.  Thus many arrange for a successful man to be the first foot over the threshold. Imagine the dismay of both parties when a Latina divorced woman arrived at her Vietnamese neighbor’s door with flowers before the invited successful male arrived.  Grandmother slammed the door in her face, and the generous neighbor was devastated as well as confused.  Beliefs in the First Foot are also prevalent in the British Isles, and Daniel Summerbell, my English great-nephew, was once recruited for that job.

What sometimes confuses us is that the New Year occurs on different dates according to different calendars.  One April, my niece, Susan Dresser who taught elementary school in Sacramento, CA, was dismayed when a few ordinarily compliant students began throwing water at her.  Susan was about to discipline the children until an aide advised that it was Cambodian New Year and throwing water at people was a custom to spread good luck.

What will you do to bring good luck in 2014?  Will you drink champagne? Blow horns?  Kiss someone you love?  Make resolutions?

Noisemakers; champagne, hat, confetti.  ©  Common American New Year's symbols, Norine Dresser collection, 2013.
Noisemakers; champagne, hat, confetti. © Common American New Year’s symbols, Norine Dresser collection, 2013.

Happy New Year to all!

Norine Dresser is a folklorist who drinks champagne on New Year’s Eve, sings “Auld Lang Syne” but doesn’t make resolutions.

food, Movies & Movie Stars

Peter O’Toole at the Deli

My late husband, Harold, was a movie buff, and his favorite film was “Lawrence of Arabia.”  He saw it dozens of times and was always transported by the larger-than-life Lawrence, the music (We even bought the film score.), and the magnificent spectacle of this David Lean masterpiece.

Harold's hero.  © Text by Norine Dresser, 2013
Harold’s hero. © Text by Norine Dresser, 2013

In 2006, when Harold was diagnosed as terminal and I cared for him in home hospice, he occasionally requested that I drive him to Canter’s Delicatessen to have a hot pastrami sandwich on rye, dill pickle, and a chocolate phosphate.  As he neared his life’s end, there was no need to continue dietary restrictions, so I happily made the one hour round-trip drive to accommodate his wishes.

One wintry Sunday when some of the children were visiting, Harold asked if we all might go to Canter’s.  While there, a solitary customer wearing a woolen cap pulled low, caught our attention.  His piercing blue eyes betrayed his desired anonymity.  It was Peter O’Toole.  What a thrill for us all, especially Harold.

We refrained from going over to tell him about Harold’s admiration, and Harold was content just to bask in the shared environment of the aromatic delicatessen with his hero.  For the rest of us, it seemed like an omen, and unstated last wish for Harold.

Rest in Peace, Harold Dresser.  Rest in Peace, Peter O’ Toole, and thank you for bringing joy to my husband and millions of other moviegoers.

Norine Dresser is a folklorist who shares her late husband’s appreciation of Lawrence of Arabia.

customs/rituals, Festivals, folklore, holidays

‘Tis the Season: Thanksgivvukah, Menurkey, Chrismasukkah, Hanumas, Merry Mazel Tov!

We had no Christmas tree or red and green decorations in our apartment.  Like most Jewish children during the 1930s and 1940s, I felt very left out during Christmas holidays.  When I asked why we could not have a “Hanukkah Bush” like some Jewish families, my parents emphatically said, “No!”  To them it would be denying who we really were.  However, much to my mother’s chagrin, I was  chosen to be a Christmas caroler in elementary school.  Reluctantly, she said I could participate, but I wasn’t supposed to say the words, “Jesus Christ.”  Of course, I disobeyed her, and I still love those songs.

My greatest Christmas thrill occurred when I was twelve and new neighbors invited me over to help decorate.  My parents approved since it took place away from our home.  I savored smelling the aroma of holiday cookies, the placing of shiny ornaments on the fragrant tree branches, and the stringing of popcorn and cranberries to adorn their tree.

When my children were growing up in the 1950s, Jewish attitudes about Christmas changed.  Instead of having children envious of Christmas, many families attempted to turn Hanukkah into a comparable celebration — decorating homes in silver and blue, lighting menorahs (candelabras holding eight candles) — emphasizing that we had eight days of presents instead of just one.  Parents requested that public schools give us equal time resulting in menorahs at school proudly displayed alongside Christmas tree.  Civic leaders acknowledged non-Christian citizens who were also celebrating at this same time of year, so in many public places they lit giant menorahs.

Over the past several decades, especially with intermarried families with Jewish and Christian backgrounds, parents have attempted to combine the two holidays that come close to each other in time, so now we have combination names: Chrismukkah and Hanumas.

Asher Weintraub and his "Menurkey."  © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2013
Asher Weintraub and his “Menurkey.” © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2013

This year, Hanukkah coincided with Thanksgiving, a rare event.  The last time it occurred was in 1861 and the next time in 2070.  Consequently, this year “Thansgivvukah” entered the jargon.  A creative nine-year-old, Asher Weintraub, of New York, created a “menurky” a turkey menorah where each of the eight candles fit behind a turkey feather.  Asher believes that the two holidays have gratitude in common: Hanukkah because lamp oil enough for only one night lasted for eight nights, and Thanksgiving because the pilgrims were grateful for what their new land and the Wampanoag people provided.

Sometimes holiday time becomes confusing.  One woman describes how her fellow employees selected a Christmas gift for their boss, wrapped it and attached a Hanukkah card.

When the boss opened his present, he enthusiastically thanked them but was puzzled.  “Thank you for the Hanukkah card, but I am not Jewish.”

“But you always talk about going to Temple,” a bewildered worker complained.

“Yes,” the boss clarified, “The Mormon Temple.”

Norine Dresser is a folklorist who enjoys religious and national holidays of all kinds.