New Year’s: Just another day

Recently while cleaning out a long-neglected nook in our house, I came across a box containing several misfigured chunks of lead. They were from a New Year’s gathering we attended a few years ago. I considered for a moment whether to toss them in the trash, then realized that doing so probably would mean breaking some environmental law. I stuffed the lead chunks back in the box and placed the box back where I had found it.

A Latvian New Year’s ritual involves pouring a ladle full of molten lead into a bucket of cold water. Whatever form the lead takes—and whatever you think you can discern from the shape—is supposed to reveal what fortune the future will bring.

As a child, laimes liešana was always the highlight of the Latvian New Year’s parties I attended. (Actually, because I was a child, the "pouring of one’s fortune" was really the culmination. It seemed that as soon as the lead set into shape, I was hustled off to bed, the theory apparently being that staying up until just past midnight was not healthy. Little did my parents know that, wherever we were, I ended up staying awake until past midnight anyway. How could anyone sleep with all that racket going on, with tipsy adult Latvians talking, guffawing and singing old war songs?)

Granted, the coming of the new year has an important place in Latvian culture. Compiled by P. Šmits and published in 1940, Latviešu tautas ticējumi, has nearly 800 entries for the new year in its collection of Latvian folk beliefs. The close of the old year was a time for Latvian maidens to divine their marital status in the new year, for farmers to eat lots of gray peas to ensure loads of money and for folks in general to avoid incidents that could turn into bad habits for the next 12 months.

But the pouring of lead, the dragging of a log and other Latvian end-of-the-year rituals have never really been activities that excite me. It’s not they’re not fun—and sometimes even meaningful—rituals. It’s just that the end of the calendar year sometimes seems so arbitrary.

A few years back, I read a magazine article about how people observe the passing of time differently. For one woman in the American West, according to the article, the new year began not with the turn of a page in a calendar, but with the return of the geese in spring. It was then that she knew the cycle of life was starting again.

I teach at a university, and for me the new year begins not at the end of December but at about the third week of August, when it’s time to assemble notes, rewrite syllabi and plan the rhythm of courses.

To be sure the end of 2001, especially in the United States, perhaps is to be welcomed. It hasn’t been a good year. Hundreds of thousands of workers lost their jobs, and that’s before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 transfixed and then transformed America.

But when we wake up in the "new year," will everything suddenly be different? Of course not. The military action in Afghanistan will still be going on, Argentina will still be in financial turmoil, and Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga and Einārs Repše will still be among Latvia’s most popular politicians (and I still can’t figure out this whole Repše thing). I still will have to feed the dog and the damned cat, pesky telephone solicitors will continue to call and I’ll still be woefully behind in all the work I have to do.

I suppose I don’t like closure. I like change and fluidity, not full stops.

Perhaps that’s why I didn’t toss those weird chunks of lead when I found them. Throwing them away, well, that would be that: no more chunks of lead. Hmm… Maybe I should melt them down and see what the new year may bring after all.

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

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