In her own words: The ghost of New Year’s past

Editor’s Note: @ Elon editor Keren Rivas is a native of Peru. In this column, she reflects on the different New Year’s traditions she observed growing up on the other side of the equator.

Every year on New Year’s Eve, my neighborhood in the small northern Peruvian town where I grew up became a bit strange.

There was the old woman from the house around the corner who shortly before midnight started walking around the block hauling two pieces of luggage to ensure travel was in her future. Or the next-door neighbor who started sweeping her stairs to symbolically remove “the old” from her house in time for the new year.

Vendors line the streets selling yellow underwear to welcome the new year. (Photo courtesy of Fokus/Lima-Peru)

In the open market across the street, vendors lined the streets selling yellow underwear, which according to tradition was what one should wear if one desired wealth and luck in the months to come.

Behind closed doors, the madness continued. Shortly before midnight, entire families would get under the dinner table and eat 12 grapes – one for each month – as the countdown neared one. The moment would inevitably culminate in loud “Happy New Year!” cheers and hugs and kisses for all.

These and other rituals, which my compatriots followed religiously each New Year’s Eve, had one common goal: to attract good fortune in the year ahead. My father, a Pentecostal minister, did not believe in any of these traditions, which of course meant that my sisters and I were not allowed to participate in them.

People can buy paper heads to be used in the dolls that are burned on New Year’s Eve. (Photo courtesy of Facufotografia)

Strangely enough, my father did allow us to engage in one such tradition, the burning of the dolls. These life-size dolls, or muñecos as we called them in Spanish, were made of paper or cardboard and stuffed with sawdust and fireworks. The dolls represented the old year, and burning them at midnight on New Year’s Eve was a way to bring a proper ending to the old year and be ready for the new one.

As part of the custom, we dressed the doll in old clothes and gave it a funny name as a way to ridicule him for his bad behavior in the past year. We’d also write a last will full of sarcastic remarks. This will included a recollection of our own ups and downs from the past year as well as tips for the new year. After the will was read aloud, the doll was set on fire amid claps and cheers as the firecrackers filled the air with a cloud of white smoke.

Burning the dolls at midnight on New Year’s Eve is a way to bring a proper ending to the old year and welcome the new one. (Photo courtesy of Facufotografia)

As I grew older and my family moved to a different region of the country, our family tradition of burning the old year stopped. Looking back, I’m not even sure why; it certainly didn’t matter at the time. Most of these New Year’s Eve traditions seemed foolish to me as a child. After all, what good could possibly come from eating grapes under a table, walking around the block with a suitcase or wearing yellow underwear?

Now that I am an adult and living thousand miles away from home, I’ve come to appreciate and respect their societal value, that unifying sense of identity shared by the entire community as its members take part. I’ve also discovered that trying to keep some of these traditions alive is no easy task. Finding good grapes in late December can prove difficult, and burning a life-size doll outside my home may not be neighborly, not to mention legal.

So I’m left with warm memories from past New Year’s Eve celebrations, when all I had to do to feel the spirit of the season was look out my window. But not all is lost. I do keep a new pair of yellow underwear in my drawer year-round, just in case. It certainly beats coming up with a New Year’s resolution every year.

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