Why we get wasted on New Year's

Our Dec. 31st hedonism is the last remaining relic of an ancient Roman carnival of debauchery

Published January 1, 2012 1:00AM (EST)

Guido Reni's "Bacchus"
Guido Reni's "Bacchus"

Soccer balls bulge beneath the men’s polyester skirts and blouses to create exaggerated breasts and derrieres. Their masked faces are resplendent with rouge and eye shadow, wild like plumage. Trumpet, trombone and tuba players garbed in maroon polyester suits play rousing banda, and the men shake their tousled pink and blond wigs. Their dance is a lewd, thrusting affair, accompanied by the glad-handed twirling of tuxedoed dance partners dressed as evil businessmen, who leer at the crowd with sinister rubber masks.

Incongruous on the stately town square of Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, the baile is but one of many unexpected mini-fiestas we’ve encountered as we travel through Mexico during the winter holidays. The grotesque dance is a far cry from the yuletide tableaus we’ve come to expect in the U.S., but perhaps no less bizarre: adult men dressed as women with huge asses versus adult men dressed as “Christmas elves”? Who’s to say? Although I never found out exactly what the dance in Dolores Hidalgo signified, it is likely a holdover from the wild holiday traditions of ancient Europe and Mexico.

Across ancient Europe, the yuletide holidays were a free-for-all, made dicey by role reversals: The poor invaded the homes of the rich, men dressed as women, and the lord bowed to the peasant. The 12 days of Christmas, from Dec. 25 to Jan. 7, were set in the mold of the Roman holiday Saturnalia: The holidays were a period of truce, when old grudges should be forgotten (at least temporarily), and anger swallowed. But despite all this brotherly love, the Christmas season had a sinister playfulness, similar to the original concept of trick-or-treating. Echoing Saturnalia’s public ridicule of society’s laws and customs, rowdy bands of peasants invaded the manor, demanding food and drink. In exchange, the lord received his subjects' blessings and goodwill for the coming year.

Sometimes revelers brought the booze with them: In the British Isles, wassailing was a popular and alarming part of Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The word "wassail" comes from the Old English "was hal”: “be thou hale” or “be healthy.” The phrase was originally a greeting, but naturally the boozy Brits soon turned it into a toast : “was hale!” followed by the proper reply: “drink hale!” A poem written in 1066 describes a Saxon toast before the Battle of Hastings:

Rejoice and wassail
Pass the bottle and drink healthy
Drink backwards and drink to me
Drink half and drink empty.

By the 17th century wassailing was a holiday tradition. Girls gussied up in holiday finery would carry a dubious alcoholic punch (usually spiced beer with apples) from door to door. The wealthy were expected to drink a toast and offer the wassailers payment in return. Far from the beatific carolers of today, the mobs were known to get unruly: Wassailers would prank or menace householders who refused them booze or money.

British colonists brought wassailing and drunken “trick-or-treating” to the shores of America, where all walks of life adopted the New Year’s Eve traditions. A French visitor to the New York colony was alarmed when the house was accosted at 4 a.m. by a mob of children, servants and slaves who fired a musket and threw stones at the windows. The Frenchman was tired and attempted to ignore the racket, but finally the nature of the situation was explained to him: “Mr. Lynch got up and came into my chamber to tell me that these people certainly meant to do me honor, and get some money from me. I desired him to step down and give them two Louis; he found them already masters of the house and drinking my landlord's rum. In a quarter of an hour, they went off to visit other streets, and continued their noise till daylight.”

No doubt the Frenchman’s next day was also eclipsed by rum. The Dutch had introduced a more civilized but equally drunken New Year’s Day tradition of open houses, in which city dwellers opened their doors to strangers and friends alike. New Year’s Day tables were laden with cherry bounce, coconut jumbles, rum-soaked doughnuts, honey cakes and fruit in white-wine jellies, and visitors could expect hot toddies, rum punches, eggnogs, peach cordials or sangria. Guests were expected to eat and drink at each stop, which led to great booziness.

At the time, these New Year’s traditions were just a small part of the rowdy American Christmas season, which retained its vaguely sinister European flavor. The two-week season had its abstemious detractors: Puritans railed against Christmastime as a pagan abomination and banned the holidays in their townships. Cotton Mather himself wrote disapprovingly: “"Feast of Christ's Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty ... by Mad Mirth, by long eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling... "

Mather no doubt was equally horrified by New Year’s Eve, which always marked an apex of drunken revelry. This is true around the world and throughout time: Although the New Year is celebrated from June to January and from Tallahassee to Timbuktu, almost all cultures have used the passing of one year to the next as an excuse to really party. Take for instance the fine old Sumerian tradition wherein the king had public sex with the high priestess of Ishtar, symbolizing the conception of Ninkasi, the goddess of beer.

In ancient Mexico, the New Year was an exception to draconian Aztec laws. During the rest of the year, only specific sects were allowed to drink: You could hit the pulque (fermented agave pulp) if you were a nobleman, an extremely old person or a pregnant woman; for the young able-bodied commoner, drunkenness was punishable by death. An exception to this code was allowed every fourth New Year for Pilahuana, or “The Drunkenness of Children," a festival in which godparents adorned young children with parrot down, pierced their ears, and accompanied them to watch their first human sacrifices. Afterward, everyone got wickedly drunk.

In Mexico today, people no longer go in for drunken kids and human sacrifice; a typical New Year’s Eve celebration consists of a late dinner with the family, followed by a midnight Champagne toast, amazing castillo fireworks and partying. Many families still practice the Spanish custom of eating a grape and making a wish for each chime of the countdown to the New Year. Other Mexican New Year’s superstitions include physically sweeping out the old year with a broom and wearing different-colored underwear to bring on various types of luck in the new year: white for good spiritual vibrations, red for luck in love.

The modern Mexican take on celebrating the passing of the old year and the coming of the new is representative of most countries': a mix of superstitious ritual and heavy drinking. The Japanese say goodbye to the old year in December with “forget the year” drinking parties. The New Year’s holidays, or Oshōgatsu, are more sedate family affairs that reflect the universal belief that actions during the first days of the New Year will influence the coming year: Debts are paid, disputes are settled, and houses are cleaned. Families gather to eat soba noodles for longevity and wealth and  drink taruzake (sake aged in a cedar barrel) and toso, a medicinal sake that is supposed to ward of sickness in the new year. In accordance with an ancient imperial edict that the use of alcohol is prescribed by heaven, Chinese New Year traditions involve a similar mix of ceremonial drinking and eating. Food and alcohol are served to the spiritual guardians of the household, and parties toast with cognac.

In the United States, New Year’s Eve is the only night of the once bacchanalian winter season that still retains its hedonism, with the expected outcome of serious inebriation. When it comes to New Year’s Eve, Americans are short on superstitious traditions and long on drink. In modern America, New Year’s Eve is the drinking holiday (which is saying something when one considers the vast estuaries of beer consumed on the Fourth of July, St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo).  But New Year’s Eve is special because it offers a certain carte blanche for stupid behavior. New Year’s Eve is the Las Vegas of American holidays.

Americans were not immune to the worldwide rise of Champagne in the 18th century. During the belle époque, holiday advertisements touted Champagne as the drink for celebrations. By the 20th century, a New Year’s toast was hardly complete without Champagne. Washington socialite Mrs. Evalyn Walsh McLean took things to the next level with her 1937 New Year’s Eve party, where guests consumed 480 quarts of Champagne.

Champagne was queen, but in true American fashion, ethnic enclaves added their own flavor to the party. A guest celebrating New Year’s Eve 1939 with Cuban friends recorded: “We spend several hours in a small café, eating Cuban sandwiches and mixing Cuba Libres with Ronrico and Coca-Cola. There is a jook-organ which offers a selection of eight records of Cuban music, and two records of American music. There are couples present who dance the rhumba again and again. Estrella and Pedro dance the rhumba also. Apparently they are both enjoying themselves.” If the guest had wandered a few buildings down, he might have found Austrians eating marzipan pigs and toasting with Feuerzangenbowle (aka “flaming fire tongs punch”). Scottish immigrants brought Dundee cake, black buns and Hogmanay punch (apple cider and whisky) to the table. African-Americans prepared lucky New Year’s Day dishes such as black-eyed peas and collard greens, but eventually fell prey to the Champagne dream. A 1983 issue of Black Enterprise magazine recommends pairing Champagne with soul food, stating:  “Only Champagne can reign like royalty over gala affairs and celebrations. Only Champagne can take ritual holidays and refashion them into moments of pure joy.”

Although it’s debatable that Champagne is a necessary ingredient for moments of pure joy, one thing is certain: New Year’s Eve offers a rare excuse to engage in the sort of carousing that we once viewed as a significant and inalienable yuletide right. Drink hale!

By Felisa Rogers

Felisa Rogers studied history and nonfiction writing at the Evergreen State College and went on to teach writing to kids for five years. She lives in Oregon’s coast range, where she works as a freelance writer and editor.

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