New Years Traditions

New Years Traditions

Jan 07
New Years Traditions

The other day we celebrated the arrival of the new year, 2013, in the usual ways.  Many people gathered in groups or for parties, some celebrated at home.  Others, beyond my understanding, decided to stand for hours on end in the freezing cold in Times Square so as to witness the dropping of the crystal ball.  Most of us filled glasses with Champagne (I don’t know why we choose Champagne for celebrations), sang Auld Lang Syne (Again, I don’t know why.  Most of us don’t even know the words, much less what they mean in common English), and clinked our glasses together (OK, this I know).

This process of clinking comes from about the Middle Ages.  Approximately 1,000 years earlier the custom of extending one’s right hand (as estimates are that up to 90% of the World’s population may be right handed) so as to grasp the right hand of the person facing you developed.  In this manner you have demonstrated convincingly that you are not carrying a sword or dagger in your strong arm, nor is the person facing you.  Shaking hands has come to mean greetings and friendship.  But originally it was more utilitarian as a way of determining that you were not in danger from the other person.

So fast forward about 1,000 years and while the sword and dagger are still very much in use, a subtler form of murder has moved to center stage, poison.  Think Lucretia Borgia and her infamous ring.  Water in populated areas in those days was more dangerous than spirits, so it is most likely that wine, beer, or some other spirit would be served at a gathering.  So how could you, and the person facing you, feel comfortable that your drink had not been poisoned?  Simple solution, I pour some of my wine from my tankard into your tankard.  In turn, you then pour wine from your tankard back into my tankard.  Voila, if there is poison in one tankard or the other, now we both have.  That means we are equally innocent, or one of us is crazy enough to kill himself in order to kill the other.  Today we are more civilized and poisoning (hopefully, spiking as well) one’s drink is uncommon.  But the tradition of clinking glasses in friendship, just like with shaking hands, remains.  Incidentally, it is called clinking because that is the sound made by two tankards (made of tin, of course) when they hit into each other.

If you are curious as to why we make toasts, it seems that the Romans and Greeks used burnt pieces of bread with fragrant spices as a way of improving low quality wines and spirits.  The word in Latin for burnt is Tostus.  It stuck!  In fact, it stuck so well, that at my Alma Mater, The University of Pennsylvania, when they sing one of the school’s drinking songs, the ending reads Drink a highball And be jolly, Here’s a toast to dear old Penn!  In the fullness of time, this “toast” came full circle.  Originally the student body would really drink an alcoholic beverage at this point in the song during sporting events.  When Prohibition made that impossible (well, at least difficult), the students took to throwing, you guessed it, toast onto the playing field at the final line of the song.

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