Into the New Year: Traditions from the East to the East End
by Jinsoo Henry Oh
Perhaps it’s a nice five-course meal planned out with close friends and a plan to stay up and out to watch the ball drop. Or maybe there’s champagne ready to pop for a midnight toast with the intent to dance the night away.
Regardless, Dec. 31, and the weeks leading up to it, provide a flurry of opportunities for celebrations and “look backs” – recounting the best and the worst of the outgoing year.
While the official holiday is New Year’s Day, “ringing in the New Year” is all about the celebrations surrounding New Year’s Eve and having the opportunity to leave the current year with a bang.
New Year’s Day – often seen as a sleepy, uneventful holiday in the West – is one meant for rest and recovery. The gym signups happen and attempts at resolutions begin. The rest of the year becomes history as the force of time pushes forward.
In other parts of the world, however, New Year’s Day is viewed through a different perspective – often with a more forward-looking orientation. While the New Year’s Eve party has become more popular in Asia in recent years, the traditional focus has always been on cultural celebrations, family gatherings, and food preparations on New Year’s Day itself, throughout the continent. The traditions encompass one of the most important days of the year.
For people who have emigrated from many Asian countries, New Year’s Day in their new homes abroad involve all of these things. It is a unique experience in multicultural, western societies to participate in both parts of the New Year’s holiday. In many cases, the holiday is shifted or even celebrated twice – to account for the fact there exist both a solar calendar
New Year on “January 1” and the New Year’s Day that occurs in the lunar calendar.
The solar calendar is the Gregorian calendar that bases the passage of a year when Earth fully orbits the sun. It is the most common method of time keeping in the modern world and the one most people are familiar with. In old world societies, however, the lunar calendar is used to mark traditional holidays such as New Year’s. Lunar New Year’s Day is celebrated on the second new moon after the winter solstice, unless there is a rare “leap month” in the year’s calendar.
In certain Asian countries, the lunar calendar New Year is more important, but for pragmatic reasons, the day’s festivities are often all compressed into the solar New Year’s Day, January, 1 in the United States, Canada, and similar countries, when most people are free from the obligations of work and school. New York City’s Chinese New Year celebrations follow the lunar calendar and are just one example of the importance Asian countries place on the day. Having grown up in a Korean household in the United States, I have known the struggle of doing all of the above in a 24-hour period for some time now.
In Korea, New Year’s includes many traditions – making dumplings the night before, waking up, bowing to and wishing luck to your elders, receiving money from your elders (if you are young), playing games, and eating a tasty soup filled with rice cakes and the dumplings made the night before. The holiday is a multi-day affair.
As the sun holds a more spiritual and philosophical importance in East Asia than in the West, it has also become popular to see the first sunrise of the year. In order to see this happen, it has become an event to travel to the eastern most point of land to see it. This event is known as “hae do ji” or “hae mah ji” in Korean.
In the New York City metropolitan area, the easternmost tip of land just happens to be Montauk Point. It is here that many Korean-Americans from New York City and western Long Island have been descending upon in recent years to greet the New Year with a glow of East End light.
To find out more about other Eastern and East End traditions, I took a trip to a local bastion of Japanese food and culture, restaurant and sake tasting room, Stirling Sake, in Greenport. I was able to speak with some of the staff regarding their own New Year’s traditions in Japan and learned that while there were some differences between the two countries, they also bore many similarities to the Korean traditions I grew up with.
Unlike Korea, Japan’s New Year’s traditions are currently celebrated in accordance with the Gregorian, solar calendar, rather than the lunar calendar. The New Year’s “season” begins with a period of cleaning one’s home, sometime between the 28th and 31st of December. On New Year’s Eve, it is customary to eat soba noodles.
While traditionally, many people engaged in “mochi-tsuki”, or the making of rice cakes, this has become less popular in cities, and practiced more so in the countryside. Other customs such as preparing “osechi” – various prepared dishes served in a box – and “ozouni” – a rice cake soup, are more widely in practice. The food prepared for osechi is often cooked in a way so that they can be eaten continually for three days, as the holiday lasts until January 4th. Each of the osechi dishes has a meaning or purpose behind them. Lobsters, for instance, resemble the arch of an old man’s back.
Just like the many Korean-Americans who descend upon Montauk Point on New Year’s Day, the Japanese take part in “hatsuhinode” – the first sunrise of the year. However, this first sunrise is also followed by a first visit to a shrine in Japanese culture.
Family customs on New Year’s in both countries are also similar, although the Korean ones tend to be slightly more Confucian – placing more emphasis on the filial relationships between young and old. The Japanese mindset, on the other hand, is slightly more individualized and the greetings are a bit more relaxed. In both countries, however, younger family members still wish their elders luck in the New Year and receive money in return. In Korea, this is known as “sae bae don”, in Japan they call it “otoshidama.”
More modern New Year’s phenomenon in Japan include playing the lottery and watching K1 fighting.
While East Asia seems to make the most of the New Year’s holiday, I was delighted to learn about many other traditions exist around the world. In Spain and some other Spanish speaking countries, it is believed that beginning to eat 12 grapes at midnight (one more for each chime of the clock that follows) will bring good luck for the 12 months that follow.
In the American South, eating “Hoppin John” (Carolina Peas and Rice), is also seen as a sign of good luck, as the black eyed peas in the dish symbolize coins and eating them, good fortune.
Regardless of the culture, it seems that food and well wishing remain central to the customs celebrating the end or the beginning of the year, depending on whom you ask.
As for myself, I will be ringing in 2018 with a bang – making dumplings a day early on the 30th so I can DJ a New Year’s Eve party on the 31st, engage in all the traditional Korean celebrations on the 1st, and just maybe catch enough sleep to catch the first sunrise over our beautiful island in between it all.