Ringing In The New Year With Lipstick Girl, Frank Sinatra, & Korean Rice Cake Soup…
“You staying home all alone on New Year’s Eve? Unthinkable. Take my advice … the countdown should be shared with someone, or it’s just another set of numbers passing you by.”
― E.A. Bucchianeri,
Everyone has their own opinions about New Year’s Eve.
The week leading up to New Year’s Eve is always an anxious one for me. As others shop for glittery party tiaras, foil hats and horns, and a variety of noisemakers, I look for creative ways to deflect any inquiries about my New Year’s Eve plans.
So on this December morning, I figured we’d take a trip to a place where my own memories could take a backseat for a moment and we could, for a while, ignore all boundaries of time and space.
Perhaps I just wanted to see if anyone else felt the same way I did about this day. I needed a different perspective.
We make a stop at the Lawrence Senior Center in Lawrence Township, New Jersey, and speak to the executive Director of the Office on Aging, Lillian LaSalle, who welcomes us and encourages that, speaking to any one of the seniors, will be quite an adventure. “Take your pick. These folks have been through many a new year and they each have their own unique stories. Some are traditional and some will surprise you,” she warns us.
We cross the threshold into the room where many are gathered. We expect them to be sitting silently in their chairs, reading a book, snacking on breakfast biscuits, sipping tea, and snoozing perhaps. Instead, when we arrive, we find them waving their arms in the air and hopping about. They are doing their morning exercises and, to the dismay of many, the calendar of events indicated that there would be no “Hula” today. Zumba; however, would still go on. They were a lively bunch indeed and, as Lillian suggested, if there was anyone at all that could distract me from getting lost in New Year’s nostalgia, it would be these folks.
We decide to start out slow and approach a woman quietly sitting by herself near a large window. She pours some milk out of a carton and into a small teacup that she appears to have brought from home. We introduce ourselves, and with a breathy hello from the timid, grey-haired woman, who sheepishly admits that she is just shy of her 93rd birthday, we are instantly transported…
Suddenly, it is dark out. Evening. On a busy New York City street….it is the year 1941.
We step into a small Lower East Side hotel room and watch as a group of girls gather. They are chatting and laughing, pulling up their stockings, tightening curls in their hair, staring into compact mirrors as they share and smather on the same rouge lipstick. The girl with the lipstick appears to be the leader of the group. She hands them each a ticket to a nightclub event. She reminds them, “This is how we’re gonna’ get in. Don’t lose it!” They tease each other as they secure their tickets in their purses. The girl with the lipstick shoves hers inside her pantyhose. “I’m not going to lose it there,” she says self-assuredly. “Well you might, if the night goes right!” Jeers one of the other girls. Their laughter, a wild chorus of high pitched giggles and sighs, can no doubt be heard throughout the lobby of their three-story hotel. The girls, all 7 of them, barely 19 years old, except for “lipstick girl”, are in New York City for the first time. Each of the young women come from different backgrounds: nationalities, religion, socio-economic statuses. Yet all of them are lifetime friends. Today, they are in New York City to celebrate the iconic New Year’s Eve and the departure of one special girl from the group. Its leader, “lipstick girl”, the one who plans all the parties, who has traveled the world, the one who has taught them to challenge the role of young women growing up in America, is leaving…to become a nun. The others, not quite sure what they want to do with their lives yet, will soon follow their own path as wives, mothers, secretaries, writers, and nurses. But on this cold celebratory December night, the women put all decisions aside, button their coats, fasten their hats, and walk arm in arm into the blustery night to usher in the future.
“Oh, we would save up as much money as we could and we’d go on our trips. New Year’s Eve was no exception. They were all such great girls. It’s amazing how different we all were but how well we all got along. I can’t believe I’m thinking about them today. Isn’t that something…”
We cross the Hudson River into New Jersey, where a young man and his wife hold each other as they sway to a ballad by an up-and-coming singer.
“My wife didn’t think much of him at the time. Frank Sinatra. But I thought he had a great voice! I’ll never forget that night. New Year’s Eve was about having fun. Going all out. Back then, I’d go out dancing all night with my wife, then we’d stumble into a restaurant for breakfast, and we’d go home and sleep all day on January 1st.”
We travel on down to Delaware in the 1950s to an old bar where a large group of ten girlfriends exhaustedly dance the night away to tunes by John Michael “Jolly Jack” Robel.
“Cantwell’s. That was the name of the bar. Oh, we danced and danced until the music stopped. But that day stands out in my mind for another reason. I was new in town, and my future husband…that was the first time he saw me from across the room. It was a magical night. A new beginning.”
We head to the Caribbean and onto the island of Haiti where early in the morning the sweet scent of squash brewing kicks off the party as friends and family begin to come together.
“When my mother and father were alive, I would always go back to Haiti and spend New Year’s Eve with them. It’s a big holiday for friends and family. We all stick together. Every year a different family member would host the party. At night, we’d go to the local dance hall where everyone, even the children, got to stay up past midnight. That has always been New Year’s Eve for me.”
A bit further south on the island of Trinidad and Tobago, we find that New Year’s Eve is indeed a family affair.
“Everyone got together! We would drink, eat, and party. But in Trinidad, our favorite dish was curry chicken, goat, and rice. We would all eat before midnight, because at midnight that is when the party would start. And years ago, before there were televisions, anyone who had a gun, would fire a shot into the air to let everyone in the town know when it was midnight.”
We visit Korea, in the 1960s, where two best friends share similar New Year’s Eve experiences that seem deeply rooted in the respect for tradition.
“There is lot of food on this day, especially Korean rice cake soup. But it is really a day on which we traditionally honor our ancestors. We visit the homes of our family and friends and we bow down and honor the memory of our ancestors as we welcome the new year. It is a day to celebrate the old but also the new. That is why the children also get a lot of attention on that that day. They dress up and parade in colorful Korean costumes. It is a custom for the kids to receive money on that day. They bow before you and expect it. It is exciting to see how much money they get.”
We board a plane, and visit Peru in the 1970s, where a couple who has been married for over 42 years explains that New Year’s Eve for them was very much like a pilgrimage.
“If you lived in the mountains, you spent the new year at home with your family. But if you were able to, you would prepare and go to the Capital (Lima). Things were different there. Everything there was about friends and the University culture. They were open and more easily adaptable to change than the people out in the country or the mountains. In the city, we would dress in ball gowns and tuxedos, we danced to orchestras, and sipped champagne. We had hats, bells and whistles. We enjoyed turkey with sweet potatoes and applesauce sides and, even though the weather was warm, we drank hot chocolate for dessert. New Year’s Eve, for us, was a sign of what Peru was to become…a mix of cultures. A fusion. It wasn’t always a party though. There were difficult times. Times of war when we should not have been celebrating. We remember one New Year’s Eve, just before Velasco was overthrown, (Juan Velasco Alvarado, Peruvian Dictator overthrown in 1975), around midnight, some of his military men decided to cut the power and began terrorizing the people so much that some people even suffered hangings. But we overcame it with the help of other soldiers that were on our side and despite everything going on we still celebrated our new year. We were hopeful.”
In Guatemala, in the 1980s, we learn that culinary feasts – and hugs – are indeed the norm on New Year’s Eve.
“As far back as I can remember, we always put out three main things on New Year’s Eve: grapes, apples, and tamales. And we always eat at midnight. A midnight dinner. It was always a community event. After dinner we would go out to each neighbor and offer them a New Year’s hug.”
A crowd was beginning to gather around us and the stories just kept coming. Each one focusing on friendship, family, adventure, cuisine, and even war. New Year’s Eve was a treasure trove of memories for them. But the seemingly merry holiday, also conjured up remembrances that weren’t quite as joyous. Several in the crowd echoed the sentiments that New Year’s Eve was “just another day” for them…a somber shadow cast upon the calendar page-turning day often by fathers or brothers at war, loved ones lost, broken relationships, heartache, illness, or simply…loneliness.
Surprisingly enough, considering how obsessed with list-making we are at the beginning of the year, when asked about New Year’s resolutions, I was greeted with an overwhelming “No“. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but their actual responses make a lot of sense in today’s world where we all seem to be overwhelmed and hard-pressed for time.
“New Year’s resolutions? I stopped making them.”
“You make them and you break them. Resolutions are unrealistic.”
“Resolutions are repetitive and ridiculous.”
“I don’t make resolutions. I live. That’s all I do. I just live.”
“The older you get, the less you want to live by traditions and rules. You want to be free of all stressors and pressures. You just want to be. So you live your life with no boxes to check off.”
“The older you get, the less you do. Old people don’t make resolutions. We just don’t bother.”
“Planning is good. So is setting goals. But after a while, there comes a point where all planning goes out the window.”
“I just enjoy each day as it comes. I’ve learned to be spontaneous at my old age. I just do it my way. If I don’t want to do something, I won’t do it.”
“My New Year’s resolution is simply: to get to more sleep!”
Feeling as though we’ve just traveled the world and through time, we reluctantly peel ourselves away from the group, promising to return for more stories.
I have always felt a bit melancholy about New Year’s Eve. Perhaps I fear the flip of the calendar page because it will signify an end rather than a beginning. I think about all that I’m going to miss of the previous year. I fixate on those things that will no longer exist, including, in this case, those two little digits at the end of the written date. And although the year 2015 won’t be too far in the distant past, on January 1, 2016, I will most likely feel nostalgic for it.
On this day, I prefer to stay at home, on my couch, in front of the television set, wearing warm and fuzzy socks, a cozy sweatshirt, and wrapped in a soft blanket, catching marathon reruns of the black and white sitcom, The Honeymooners, waiting for the countdown to begin.
But there are those, unlike me, who love New Year’s Eve and relish in the possibility of the future…of starting over. Those who take it upon themselves to party like there is no tomorrow. Those unafraid to end the year with a bang. They dance, they eat, they laugh, they kiss strangers, and gasp – they stay out until morning!
For these people, it’s a must to spend it with family & friends. Some of these people will never miss gathering amongst the chilly masses at Times Square in New York City. While others make sure to follow superstitions and traditions that have been passed down for years: dress in your snazziest outfit and clean up your house, for however the new year finds you will be the way things go the rest of the year…you must find someone to hug and kiss at midnight so your heart may be filled with love for the 12 months to come…you must make noise to scare away any evil spirits.
As they carry on with their festivities, I plan on being on my couch, watching one of the televised New Year’s Eve celebrations. I won’t confess to it, but maybe…just maybe…I keep a pot and wooden spoon nearby.
A sea of tiny faces shouts into the air.
They blow their whistles and toot their horns.
They raise their champagne glasses.
They kiss and embrace shrouded in a cloud of confetti.
With remote control in hand, I can’t help but shed a tear.
New Year’s Eve is a day of reflection for me. Reflection inevitably invites nostalgia. Nostalgia brings that bitter-sweet mix of joy and sadness. And it all becomes one big emotional party.
Having spent the morning chatting with my new friends at the Lawrence Senior Center, I’ve learned the meaning of that song that we all so mindlessly hum along to at midnight: Auld Lang Syne. The tune written by Scottish Poet Robert Burns, simply urges us to reflect on “days gone by.” It encourages us to remember and cherish old friends, accomplish good deeds, whether we call them “resolutions” or not, and positively hope for the year ahead.
One thing I’m certainly glad about at the end of the night…I don’t have to groggily travel far to get home. I can simply pull the covers over my head and close my eyes.
Sure, I might miss 2015, but I am excited about what 2016 has in store for me…perhaps more stories and lessons to learn.