Greeting the New Year With A Celebration of Customs

Food writer Burt Wolf shares insights, traditions, and choice recipes from holidays around the world

Now that Westerners have rung in the New Year and resolved to alter lifestyles for the better, food journalist, author, and world traveler Burt Wolf would like to point out a few other causes for celebration in the coming year.

The Chinese New Year, for example, or Scotland's Robert Burns Night, or - for the truly adventurous - Finland's Midsummer Festival. Or how about a birthday party in Walt Disney World? OK, so not everyone can afford to partake of the luxuries outlined in Wolf's latest book, "Gatherings and Celebrations" (Doubleday), but at least we can try out the recipes that accompany each ritual.

Take Jan. 25, when Scots celebrate Robert Burns Night, a holiday dedicated to the country's patron poet and author of the timeless ditty "Auld Lang Syne." According to Wolf, such native dishes as Cock-a-Leekie Soup, Clapshot, and Cranachan should accompany the festivities.

Wolf's book addresses the origins of holiday customs with flair. That's the least one can expect from this seasoned cook and traveler. Besides writing, Wolf - a popular TV personality - has appeared on CNN, PBS, and the Travel Channel.

Having recently returned from a two-month visit to Hong Kong, Wolf puts the world's most anticipated and dreaded New Year's Eve in perspective. As the longtime British colony prepares to return to Chinese control in July, Wolf envisions a multinational cause celebre. "There will be one last New Year with the English, Scottish, and Chinese traditions," he declares, "and one giant, fabulous party."

For party goers in Hong Kong, the most important question may be when to celebrate the changing of the guard, on the Western or Chinese New year. "The Chinese New Year is lunar," Wolf says, "and so never falls on the same day."

Whenever they celebrate the new year, Wolf says, Hong Kong's large population of Scots will observe the custom known as "first footer," named after the first person - often an invited guest - to enter a home in the new year. The guest, according to Wolf, should bring a gift that will not leave the house in the coming year.

English people, according to Wolf, will "bring a table of the foods they love." "There will be lentils," he says, "which symbolize good fortune." And, for the very fortunate, caviar.

"The table at New Year's," he concludes, "will show simple foods that express frugality...and extravagant foods that symbolize hope."

Naturally, the concept of yin and yang is echoed in Chinese celebrations. Fish, to the Chinese, represent good fortune. "If you cook fish on New Year's," Wolf says of the Chinese, "you eat half on New Year's Day and save half to carry over to the new year."

Wolf goes back a day, to the night before New Year's Eve, when the women of China gather to make dumplings together - a way of working out tension. If the women cannot work out their problems, Wolf says, "the dumplings will not float and will break apart. Men in the family lurk about and look in the pot to see if there are any problems in the year ahead."

The author's studies and travels have divulged one unifying theme for celebrations around the world. "Most of the celebrations I looked at," he says," relate to something happening in the cosmos."

The one exception to this rule, according to Wolf, is the relatively modern ritual we call New Year's Eve.

In a section of Wolf's book entitled "Brief History of New Year's Eve," he explains that "some cultures chose autumn as the start of their New Year." He proceeds to tie the fiscal year, the school year, and even the TV season to this antiquated belief. In 153 BC, as a response to a logical Egyptian petition, the Roman Senate appended January and February, thereby updating the prior 10-month calendar to a facsimile of our current one. Pontiffs and monarchs would later move the New Year to Jan. 1 purely for egocentric reasons. "New Year's," says Wolf, "is the one case where we have superimposed the will of man on the will of nature."

Although Wolf's dry sense of humor ("The Scots are very serious about being Scottish") comes across in the book, there is a fountain of philosophy behind the wit. "All of the gatherings I covered," says Wolf, "had two major underlying objectives: to bring together opposites such as dark and light, and birth and death, and to connect people to the environment."

So it is fitting that Wolf's family has incorporated rituals of its own. When his second of three sons got married, Wolf and his ex-wife converged to discuss possible rehearsal dinner venues. The only place all parties could agree on was a local barbecue joint. Later, when his eldest son was making nuptial plans in Memphis, Tenn. Wolf asked him where he would like to have the rehearsal dinner. "I want to go for barbecue," the son said. When his father asked why, the son responded, "I want to start a family tradition."

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