In a non-pandemic year (remember those?), I often skip New Year’s Eve. By the time I’ve partied my way through Halloween, Thanksgiving, Winter Solstice, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and our wedding anniversary (December 27th, 34 years ago), I’m usually longing for a night in with my feet up. But not this year. I am staying vigilant until the very last second of 2020. If this year has some sneaky surprise horror ending planned, at least it won’t catch me unawares. And even if 2020 meekly lies down in its coffin, I want to bear witness as the universe drives a stake through its heart and slams the lid on it forever. Then I intend to dance on its grave singing “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead.”
Satisfying as all that may be, the main purpose of New Year’s Eve is to arrange for better luck in the year ahead. It’s the time to lay down some ground rules and let 2021 know, right from the start, that we expect better treatment than we had from its predecessor. Fortunately, public spirited citizens have spent thousands of years working out ways to make the future rosier — and passed their wisdom on to us. For years I’ve followed three luck-enhancing strategies and am researching others to see if I can up my game.
When Rich and I moved to Spain, we soon learned that absolutely everyone wears their lucky bragas rojas (red undergarments) on New Year’s Eve. In the excitement of last year’s celebrations I forgot to put mine on and have worried ever since that 2020 was entirely my fault. If so, sorry about that, folks! I’ve certainly learned my lesson.
I’m hoping you, my readers, will help balance the cosmic scales by donning your own bragas rojas on December 31st. Don’t worry, you’re not expected to reveal the jolly undies to anybody. Unless you happen to live in the tiny town of La Font de la Figuera near Valencia, where it’s customary to strip down to your scarlets and run through streets lined with cheering neighbors. I was considering introducing this custom here in San Anselmo, California, but Rich — who is usually game for any lark — pointed out that spending New Year’s Eve in jail for indecent exposure would hardly start the year off on the right foot.
Another Spanish custom I love is las doce uvas de la buena suerte, the twelve grapes of good luck. As the clock strikes midnight, you pop a grape into your mouth at each chime of the clock. Insider tip: grapes are remarkably hard to swallow that fast, so peel them, buy very small ones, or get the canned variety soaked in juice. And whatever you do, swallow all twelve. “I was in England one year,” a Spanish friend told me. “And dropped one of the grapes in a public square. It rolled away and I raced after it, grabbed it, and ate it, to the horror of my friends. But hey, who cares about hygiene when your luck is at stake?” I was aghast when I first heard this story, but after 2020, I see her point.
As soon as I finish my grapes, I’ll be tossing a bucket of water out the front door. This satisfying custom, which originated in Mexico, Cuba, or Puerto Rico (depending on whose account you believe), evicts any negative energy that might be lingering about the house. Ideally you carry the bucket from room to room to collect all the bad juju, then you pitch the water out a window or the front door. For extra good luck avoid dumping it on any passing pets or pedestrians.
Lately I’ve been on the lookout for other good-luck rituals. But like running down San Anselmo Avenue in my underwear, few seem really practical. For instance, there’s “first footer,” popular in Great Britain and elsewhere, which claims it’s auspicious to have a dark-haired male as your first visitor in the new year. Now that I’m sheltering in place, who am I going to get — the UPS guy? The Danes banish evil spirits by smashing old plates against the front doors of friends and relatives; the bigger your pile of crockery shards, the more fortune will smile on you. But somehow I don’t feel my neighbors would take this in the warm-hearted, fun-loving spirit intended. Nor would they (or the hyper-vigilant fire department two blocks away) appreciate me torching effigies of my enemies in the back yard, as is common in Ecuador and Panama. A friend of mine came up with a good alternative: he bought a piñata of a politician who will soon be leaving office, cut off its head, beat it with a stick, and drove his car over it. Twice. Will that bring him luck? Who knows? But he said it felt terrific at the time.
Every country and culture has its own traditions, and while we can scoff at them as superstition and tomfoolery, I believe it’s fun (and wise) to do our bit to entice Lady Luck back into our lives. We’ve certainly missed her this past year.
What will 2021 look like? Speculation ranges from more of the same (which will certainly be true for a while) or a return to life as we once knew it (a lovely fantasy). The truth is, the world has changed too much to bounce back to the old normal, and so have we. And that’s not all bad; some parts of 2020 are worth carrying forward. (Yes, they are!) For instance, many of us have found inner strength, resilience, and creativity we never knew we had. Just look at all the people who have learned how to bake sourdough bread (yes, I’m thinking of you, Phil), play the ukulele (I know at least three), or master the intricacies of Zoom (too many of you to count).
Rich is taking an online course called The Science of Happiness offered by the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley; it’s free if you don’t want a diploma. You’ll be hearing a lot more about it when he finishes the course, but asked what he’s learned so far he said, “Happiness isn’t about you; it’s much larger than that. It’s about social connections, kindness, and community. You can’t pursue happiness, but when you pursue opportunities to serve others, happiness is often a by-product.” As one recent study discovered, “Helping others can help you feel better during the pandemic.”
This video gives an idea what the happiness course is about.
Even if we pull out all the stops with grapes, buckets of water, and red undies, the year ahead is filled with uncertainties. Have we learned the survival lessons that will enable us to make good decisions (and good sourdough) next year? Can the vaccines vanquish this nasty virus? Will the happiness course make Rich happier? I can’t answer those questions, but I can tell you one thing for sure. It is going to feel wonderful to say, “Adios 2020!”
This post is part of my ongoing series of articles on surviving the pandemic while holding on to some shreds of our sanity and sense of humor, however weird things get.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California. Right now I'm on a Nutters' World Tour seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and wacky food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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