Scary ghost stories and tales of the glories: New Year’s tales and traditions

Back in 2013-2014, I was a contributor to the Insatiable Booksluts blog, which specialized in small-press literature reviews, Reading Rages™, and other fun and snark-tastic book-related business (I never did master Susie’s particularly awesome brand of snark myself).  It’s one of the most fun projects I’ve taken part in, and I’m really going to miss working with Susie, sj, and the rest of the IB team.

Unfortunately, the site has since been retired, but I’ve decided, with Susie’s permission, to resurrect some of my posts here at Postcards (the Juv/YA-appropriate ones, anyway…the more adult ones I’ll post to my LiveJournal blog to my new adult book blog, Same Story, Different Versions) starting with a look at some New Year’s folk tales and cultural traditions from around the world.

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Miruku-mask
Wikimedia Commons

The Fire New Year” – A poor man and woman are celebrating the New Year, making do with what very little they have, when a weary traveler knocks on their door.  He needs a place to stay for the night, and none of the other houses would accept him.  The couple agrees, and their kindness is immediately rewarded – the traveler is really the god Miruku, who’d been searching for a place to bestow his luck.

To the people of Okinawa’s Yaeyama islands, Miruku (“Miroku” in other parts of Japan) is a harvest god and bringer of good fortune.  “Miruku parades” wind through village streets during harvest festivals, led by someone dressed as the god.  And some believe that on New Year’s Eve, Miruku – in this case known as Hotei – sails with six other “Lucky Gods” to various towns “to dispense happiness to believers.”

Miroku is also a very important figure in Buddhism – he is a version of Maitreya, the Future Buddha who will save humanity from its most corrupt state.  It makes sense, then, that “The Fire New Year” also speaks of the old couple’s faith in the future – when asked whether they’d prefer wealth or youth, they choose youth, reasoning that money can corrupt one’s mind, while youth would help them work toward a better life.  In other words, they don’t ask for instant (monetary) gratification, because they trust that their future will be happy enough.

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Konig Ambanor und das Waisenmadchen,” or “King Ambanor and the Orphan Girl” – an

tawny-owl1-300x225
Wikimedia Commons
Oh, and the “fairy godmother” is an owl. Guess why I think that’s particularly neat. *cough*hint*cough*Bowie*cough*

Armenian Cinderella tale, as translated from a late 19th-century German text.  King Ambanor must find a wife if he wants to keep his throne, so he sets up a contest for New Year’s Day.  The woman “who, at a distance of one hundred paces, can knock the crown off his head with an apple,” would be his wife.  Many women try and fail at the contest, when a mysterious girl appears, veiled and covered completely with flowers.  She throws a diamond apple and successfully hits the crown, but disappears before the king can discover her identity.

According to Marian Roalfe Cox, the Cinderella in this story may symbolize the Armenian spring goddess Amanora.  Long ago, the Armenian people honored Amanora with a New Year’s festival, during which they offered her the fruits they’d grown that year.  Other sources refer to a god Amanor, or to Aramazd.

There are actually three dates associated with the Armenian New Year:

  • Amanor, March 21st, was a celebration of nature’s rebirth at the beginning of spring.  This remained the New Year’s date until the 25th century BC.
  • Navasard, August 11th, commemorates the day when the legendary hero Hayk Nahapet founded/united the Armenian nation.  Navasard was also the name for the entire first month in the Armenian calendar; it is said that Hayk Nahapet himself named that month after one of his daughters.
  • January 1st was declared the official New Year’s date by Simeon Yerevantsi, the 18th-century leader of the Armenian Church.

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Match-Girl1The Little Match-Girl – Hans Christian Andersen.  A poor girl is sent by her cruel father to sell matches on New Year’s Eve.  She lights a few to warm herself, and with each match she has a wonderful vision.  Like a number of Andersen’s other tales, this one does not end happily…or does it?  You could say Andersen gives us two endings – one comforting and one bleak, one magical and one harshly realistic.

Or you could say that the Match Girl has the happy ending, finally entering an eternally warm and loving place, while the people who passed her by get the bleak ending.  Stuck in a cold, compassionless world, they can’t even imagine a better existence – “No one had the slightest suspicion of what beautiful things she had seen; no one even dreamed of the splendor in which, with her grandmother she had entered on the joys of a new year.”

And that’s another interesting point – each “ending” is also a beginning.  One year ends and another begins.  The Match Girl’s old, miserable life ends and a wonderful new life begins.  There may even be hope for the passersby; the story ends with someone finally noticing (or really paying attention to) the disheveled kid who maybe tried to sell them some matches yesterday.  They’re too late to help her, of course, but maybe they’ll pay more attention to other children with too-thin clothes and bruised, bare feet.  And the more fortunate children who read or hear Andersen’s stories might grow into more concerned, compassionate adults.

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Gershon’s Monster – a very old Hassidic legend retold by Eric A. Kimmel.  Gershon

Gershons-Monster-246x300
Random note: the illustrations in here are wonderfully expressive

never apologizes for his mistakes. Instead, he sweeps them into the basement until Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), when he gathers them all in a giant sack and dumps them into the sea.  A wise rabbi warns Gershon that this practice will one day harm his family, but Gershon continues to be rude, ungrateful, and dishonest.  And then the day comes when all of his inner demons rise from the sea as one giant monster, while his unsuspecting children play on the beach…

In addition to Hassidic folklore, Kimmel’s story is based on a Jewish ceremony in which people symbolically shed their sins into the sea or another body of water – but unlike Gershon’s practice, this ceremony (tashlikh) involves actual regret for those sins and desire for forgiveness.

The way I see it, the timeline surrounding the story’s climax represents the timeline of Rosh Hashanah itself.  In the Jewish calendar, New Year’s Day is followed by the Ten Days of Repentance, and then Yom Kippur – the Day of Judgment.  In the story, Gershon performs his un-genuine tashlikh on New Year’s Day.  Some time passes, during which he might avert the coming danger, if only he’d remember the rabbi’s warning and actually repent for his mistakes.  Finally, the Day of Judgment comes, when all of Gershon’s sins are presented before him (and God), and his fate is decided.

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Nian-iPad-story
There’s also an iPad app version of the story

The Tale of Nián – a Chinese New Year’s legend.  Once a year, the monster Nián comes out of its mountain prison to eat, and the nearby villagers are forced to hide in their houses or run away.  But one year an old beggar discovers a way to keep Nián out.  The monster is attracted by some red paper on the door of one house, but just as he tries to charge at it, he’s hit by lightning.  So the old man wraps himself in red cloth and uses firecrackers to simulate more lightning, which terrifies Nián right out of the village.

In another version, the old man is a god who first keeps the monster out by riding it away from the village.  Eventually the old man wants to move on, so he gives the villagers advice on how best to scare Nián – by making loud music, throwing fireworks, decorating everything in red, and having the children wear masks and carry lanterns (Nián especially likes eating children).

The word Nián means “year” in Chinese, and “New Year” is “Guò Nián,” which means to “pass over” or “overcome” the year.  So, in a sense, the story of the monster is about chasing away the old year so you can start a new one.  Maybe the demons repelled by the New Year’s celebrations are like Gershon’s demons – all the negative experiences we need to overcome before we can start a fresh year.

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What other New Year’s stories have you heard or read?  What are your New Year’s Eve traditions?

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2 comments

    • Thanks! Yeah, a couple of the book blogs I used to follow are no longer around, unfortunately. I still keep in touch with some of the writers, though, so that’s nice.

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