Wednesday, January 02, 2008

New Year's Day Traditions

This is my column today.

Be careful what you do on New Year’s Day and the first 12 days of the year. They shall become harbinger of your fortunes for the rest of the year. This was one of many admonitions— superstitious beliefs, actually—that I grew up with.

One was supposed to be careful with money, steer clear of danger, eat healthy, and in general, become the person that one wanted to be for the rest of the year. Except for the fact that the admonition was limited in its application to only the first 12 days of the year, it wasn’t an entirely bad idea since it actually pushed for the acquisition of new and desirable habits. It gives new dimension to the cliche “beginning with a new slate.”

But as most things in our culture, the wisdom, or at least logic, is lost in our penchant for simply keeping things at the level of “traditions.” We don’t know why we do them, but we do them just the same because they are, well, traditions.

I am sure you are familiar with, and probably also observe, the many other traditions that many among us observe to welcome the New Year. Although I have, through the years, been able to wean myself from many of my parents’ New Year’s Day rituals, I must admit that I haven’t been 100 percent successful in this regard as some of these rituals are really difficult to let go of.
A number of these don’t make sense. But regardless of one’s age or the level of one’s maturity (and these two, I have learned are not necessary mutually exclusive) there’s always that recording in one mind of his or her mother’s stern admonition “there’s no harm in following and observing tradition.”

The tradition that requires having 12 kinds of round fruits around the dinner table at New Year’s Eve is supposed to usher in good luck. I suppose there’s no harm in observing this tradition if one can afford it and, more importantly, if one intends and actually consumes them. I know many households that hoard these fruits only to throw them away later either because they’ve bought more than enough, or simply because they are not fit to be eaten. Perhaps one can be more prudent and buy only the right quantities and the ones that are truly edible next time around?

I have reason to believe that many people do observe this tradition as evidenced by the long lines at the fruit section of the supermarket I went to on New Year’s Eve.

Apparently, this tradition has become a lucrative business as well since the variety of fruits that have become suddenly available has also become quite diverse. I noted, for instance, that a number of imported fruits such as plums, dragon fruit, peaches, longans, varieties of pears, apples and grapes, have made an appearance in supermarkets and even in public markets. They cost an arm and a leg, of course, but one can take comfort in the fact that at the very least, it widens appreciation of the various gifts nature makes available for us.

I also saw fruits that are indigenous to our country such as guavas, tamarinds, durian, etc. that were imported from our neighboring countries such as Thailand. I am told that the Thais, who produce better qualities of these fruits, learned the technology from us decades ago. One can’t help but take a deep sigh and wonder why we can’t produce fruits of the same quality (size, texture, flavor, color, etc.) as our neighbors.

Too bad of course that these important considerations are also lost in the mad scramble to simply “follow traditions.”

But some traditions do harm us.

I can understand the logic behind greeting the New Year with revelry and with as much noise as possible. The idea behind it is, as we all know, is to ward away evil spirits. I know that the science behind it is shaky, particularly if one does not believe in spirits, particularly those that do not come from a bottle (pathetic attempt at humor there, I know).
But we still do them just the same since everyone seems to be doing them. So we light up the sky with fireworks and make streets inhospitable to traffic with firecrackers.

Along the way, we blow up in smoke hard-earned money and, in many cases, cause damage to property and body parts as well.

And so we wake up on New Year’s Day to more smog on the air, litter on the streets, soot on our noses, bleary eyes, and with eardrums ringing from last night’s revelry. These in addition to bloated stomachs and splitting headaches caused by ingesting too much fat, cholesterol and alcohol. This is the way we greet the New Year, thanks to traditions.

I don’t watch the news on New Year’s Day because I don’t like watching what has become another annual tradition: watching people grimacing in pain in some hospital while hapless doctors do what they can to stitch back body parts blasted by firecrackers. If it is any consolation, at least we do not have as many people being victimized by wayward bullets anymore. But we do still have people, both inebriated adults and misguided children, who still end up greeting the New Year with a missing finger, or in the worst case scenario, a limb. There must be a better way to stop this annual massacre.

This time around, the government had this harebrained idea of using scare tactics to reduce firecracker-related casualties on New Year’s Eve. I am sure that the secretary of the Department of Health will soon be gloating around in a self-congratulatory mood as he regurgitates statistics that, expectedly, will show reduced casualties this year. It sure rakes up pogi points and projects the impression that the government is doing its job. But will that totally stop people from lighting up firecrackers next year?

I really doubt it! This has been done many times in the past with very little results. Any psychologist worth his reputation will attest that scare tactics don’t produce sustainable behavior changes. They simply numb people into a state of temporary denial. What needs to be done is provide better and safer alternatives. What we need is to educate people and empower them to change paradigms about better ways to greet the New Year. What we need is more long-term solutions, not short-term campaigns that only work for a couple of days. But I guess that kind of effort requires strategic thinking, something that is sadly lacking among our leaders.
And then there is of course this tradition of making New Year’s resolutions. Like I said in this column last week, I have realized that keeping New Year’s resolutions has become more difficult each year, what with the many modern-day temptations and aggravations that test one’s resolve. For example, how can one adhere to resolution to stop smoking when there are many products that supposedly eliminates the hazardous effects of this pernicious habit anyway? I know, I know, such reasoning betrays weakness of character. But as a wise man once said: “He who breaks a resolution is a weakling; he who makes one is a fool.”

Still, a New Year is as good as any to indulge in some cleansing ritual. Making resolutions allows us the opportunity to reflect and assess. But then again, why limit it only to this time of the year? To simplify things, I have made up only one resolution for 2008: To allow space for myself to grow more and to allow others to grow as well.

Happy New Year, everyone!

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