Goodbye 2016, hello 2017! Strike up the band, it’s time for the perennial favorite, Auld Lang Syne. English translation of the 1700s Scots poem set to music and adopted as tradition to mark the end of something, be it an event, someone’s life, or simply another year, is “for (the sake of) old times.” Traditional use of the song in our culture has also developed an association with wishes for good luck and prosperity in the new year.
Prognostication and preparation for what sort of luck the new year might offer was an art form for my grandmother, something for which she relied on a tad of tradition, a smidge of superstition and likely a lot of old time wit and wisdom handed down to her. I’ve also wondered if it might have been in some way remotely related to the fact that she and my grandfather married on New Year’s Day in 1920.
My father’s mother, who was born in Aledo, Texas in 1905, married my grandfather when she was 15. My grandfather was born in Natchez, Mississippi in 1888, and was 31 when they married. He was already a veteran of 18 years of service with the Cotton Belt railroad having gone to work for them in 1901 when he was a mere 13 years old. Ten years later in 1930, when my father was seven years old, they moved to Pittsburg in Northeast Texas, where they lived in the same house for the rest of their lives. For him, that was 1967. For her, 1993.
Life was, to say at the very least, different a hundred years ago. My grandparent’s age difference when they married was not that far removed from the lives of many other members of the working class at the time. Many of my grandmother’s philosophies about explaining and coping with life were likely based in her parent’s and her husband’s thinking, all of whom were born in the 180os. While some of that philosophy was part superstition, the Lord certainly had a hand in her thinking as well. Granny was also a devout Christian and faithful member of the First Methodist Church in Pittsburg for more than 60 years.
As each year drew to a close, she wasted no time in sharing those personal philosophies—her old sayings, as she called them—to ensure that everyone in the family knew exactly what was in store for the new year. Those sayings included plenty of sage advice on how to predict and how to influence one’s life and luck as the calendar rolled over to January 1.
Perhaps the pivotal piece of providence was making sure you ate for prosperity. Dinner (the noon meal for her generation—a.k.a. known as lunch) at her house on New Year’s Day held true to the common southern states tradition by including black-eyed peas and cabbage. Still widely practiced in Southern culture, popular belief is that dining on these delicacies will assure good luck and financial good fortune. Some hold to the premise that the key menu item is the peas, and that cabbage is simply a side dish for backup, or additional wealth. I’m a fan of peas and cabbage any day of the year as long as they come with cornbread and iced tea. And, while I’ve consumed more than my share over the years, I would truly be hard pressed to say how much worse off I might be had I opted for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead. Whatever the cuisine on January 1, I’ve always been blessed.
Her second favored New Year’s advice she proposed for approval regarded the weather. She noted on her Cardui calendar for every day of the first 12 days, exactly what the weather was on that day. These notes became her forecasting tool for each of the 12 months to follow. If New Year’s Day was stormy, cloudy or cold, then we were surely in store for bad weather during the first month of the New Year. Rain on the third meant March was going to be a wet month. I thought it was a really fascinating substitute for science until the year snow fell on the eighth. And, no‑it did not snow in August that year.
There was also something to do with the wind on New Year’s Day. I never could keep that one straight, something about if the wind was from the south, nice weather and good times were in store. Wind from the north was an omen of bad weather all year. Seems as wind from the east was a sign of bad things to come while westerly winds were hope for good things, or vice-versa. So what if it’s calm on New Year’s Day? A happy and prosperous year was in store for all, according to granny.
Other lesser pressed premises included gems such as the first person entering your home on January 1 would have a strong influence on your new year. She always advocated that it was especially good fortune if that first visitor to your house for the new year was bearing a gift or something good to eat. Truthfully, I’ve always thought any day someone came to my house with a gift or food was a good day.
For some odd reason, blondes and redheads arriving first were strong signs of bad luck according to my grandmother. And, another oddity offered as how the first one to your house should knock and be allowed in rather entering unannounced. But, it didn’t stop there. When leaving, that first visitor must be let out through another door other than through the door he or she entered. Last, but not least, no one in the house was supposed to leave before the first visitor arrived. The initial direction of travel through the door had to be in. It was bad luck should anyone dare go out of the house first.
Granny also did not wash any clothes on New Year’s Day. No how, no way. Dirty clothes would wait until January second. If you didn’t get your laundry done before January 1, you were on you own until January 2. That one, I recall, was not exclusive to New Year’s Day, however. She also held that it was bad luck to labor with laundry on any Monday. I wondered later in life if this had anything to do with the fact that my grandmother, who died in 1993 while still living in that same house she first occupied in 1930, never owned a washing machine. “Doing the laundry” for her meant a couple of number three wash tubs, a scrub board, and a clothes line. That, in my book, would constitute bad luck whatever day dirty clothes had to be dealt with.
Looking back, our good fortune is in many ways that life today is immensely better than it was then. Regardless of our perspective, it’s hard to deny these are the good old days.
Whatever your New Year’s traditions may be, my wish for you is a happy and prosperous 2017. Enjoy your black-eyed peas and cabbage, check the weather, may that first visitor bring you good cheer and a small gift, and leave your laundry basket full until Monday.
Oh, and “for (the sake of) old times,” I also wish for all of us that our good fortune in the new year lasts longer than our resolutions.
— Leon Aldridge