Stella Pope Duarte

First foot, jumping fires and buñuelos

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crossedeyeAccording to New Year’s traditions in Asia and the British Isles, the first person who crosses your threshold on January 1st will either bring you good luck or bad luck. No one wants to open the door to a loser, a cross-eyed person, a red-haired person or one whose eyebrows connect across the nose. British families are even known to leave the house at midnight on December 31st, then have the most powerful person in the family be the first to enter, or arrange for the right person to be the “first foot” over the threshold. Thus, they will have good luck and prosperity in the new year.

Don’t be surprised if you see someone carrying a large platter with fish, meat, rice, a dollar bill and other significant offerings to a nearby busy intersection. This is a New Year’s tradition observed by the Vietnamese and represents an offering to the gods to prevent any accidents from taking place there in the new year. In other countries, such as Iran, people observe purification ceremonies. The Persian New Year, or Nouruz, is a 13-day celebration that includes the tradition of jumping over fires. Bonfires are built and many Middle Eastern men and boys jump over the fires as a sign of purification for the New Year. To avoid problems with city fire codes in the U.S., bonfires are often built on beaches or open land where fire hazard is at a minimum.

I recall one child in my second-grade class years ago, who was from the island of Tonga. After a week’s lesson about the dangers of playing with matches and a presentation by Fireman Bob and his trusty Dalmatian, Spotty, he related to us that he also “jumped fires.” The news that “he jumps over fires” went through my class, and through the entire school, like wildfire and, before long, I had to prepare another lesson with Policeman Bill on what happens to people who jump through fires within the city limits. This served as an eye-opener for children already making plans to imitate this curious and fascinating New Year’s tradition. 

Sweeping the house on New Year’s Day is considered bad luck in many Asian cultures. One must not sweep away dirt on the floor as this could be interpreted as “sweeping away good luck.” Don’t take a shower on New Year’s Day either, as you may be washing away all the good luck. I suppose living for a day in a dirty room with an unwashed body won’t hurt in the long run. Indeed, the new year will become brighter as the house is swept and the body is washed. 

Red envelopes filled with money, lai see, given by the Chinese at the New Year are often decorated with gold characters expressing good wishes for the coming year. The color red signifies good luck, and the money signifies prosperity.

In one Mexican tradition, buñuelos, thin, fried tortillas topped with sweet syrup or white powered sugar, are often served on New Year’s Eve. I recall my sister making these delicious, high-calorie sweets, which are reminiscent of Indian fry bread and are quite addictive. Taking a shot of mezcal and daring one another to eat the worm at the bottom of the bottle are also amusing practices among Latinos, and, of course, eating menudo in the morning for la cruda, the tenacious hangover, is written in stone.

A custom you may want to imitate from our neighbors in the Middle East is offering your loved ones a kiss on New Year’s Day and this wish: May you live for one hundred years.

Stella Pope Duarte was born and raised in South Phoenix. She began her award-winning career in 1995 after she had a dream in which her deceased father told her that her destiny was to become a writer. Contact her at stellapopeduarte.com.

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