Auld Lang Psycho

Some ancient peoples celebrated the New Year by putting out fires. Other equally ancient peoples whiled away the long, bleak winters with nothing to do but eat but woolly mammoth jerky and yak pudding by starting them right back up again. All the nearby forests having been burnt down, the ancient Romans took to exchanging New Years’ nuts engraved with a likeness of the two-faced god Janus. Many gift-givers finally abandoned this tedious and frustrating practice, substituting instead a small rind of goat’s cheese bearing a mold spot in the shape of Elvis. There was still a nut involved.

Meanwhile, the Persians gave each other eggs, mice, catnip, and fleas, while the Druids got rid of the mistletoe that had been accumulating on their trees all year by declaring it ‘sacred’ and foisting it off on unsuspecting passersby. In 43 A. D. the Romans (who were less ancient by this time) landed in Britain, stiff and sore from having gotten locked in the baggage compartment with nothing to read. A paltry twelve centuries later quick-witted local governments adopted the Roman custom of asking their citizens for New Year’s gifts, which had died out back in Rome because the royal palaces got filled up with nuts and moldy cheese and taken over by squirrels. The British rulers were cleverer, though, and demanded things like gold and jewelry as gifts. This period (roughly 1250 A. D. up to last Tuesday) was one of great prosperity for the English Crown.

In Scotland, where they have as many varieties of insanity as Eskimos have of snow, the New Year sees the hardy denizens collecting juniper and water at sunset, assigning different colors to the wind depending on direction, avoiding cats, beggars, women, or redheads as unlucky, and giving each other gifts of coal and whiskey. They also consider it bad luck to engage in marriage proposals, break glass, spin flax, sweep, or carry out garbage on New Year’s Eve. My guess is the whiskey is somehow involved.

Heading south, in Somerset the largest non-apple tree that can be found is called the Apple Tree Man. Apple cider is poured on its roots and lower branches, whilst cake and toasted bread soaked in cider are hung from the limbs. Shouting, banging tin plates, firing shotguns, and splitting the bark of the innocent tree are all undertaken with great enthusiasm in order to drive off evil spirits. Nothing can be done about this except yank the children out of school and move to Passaic.

The American colonies celebrated the New Year by firing guns into the air and shouting: in an ingenious arrangement the downstairs colonists did the shooting while those upstairs shouted and threw themselves heavily to the floor. Another custom of this period was to choose a random passage from the Bible and then use various parts of it to predict what would happen in the coming year. This curious practice eventually evolved into the Congressional budget process still in use today.