Winter Traditions

This time of year is one that hosts a wealth of random acts for strange reasons.  Why do we drop a New Year’s Ball?  Why do we clip drinks together for toasts when the aforementioned ball drops?  Why do we kiss under the mistletoe? (Seriously, why Mistletoe?  It’s basically the tick of the floral kingdom)

If you think about it, none of these things have anything to do with the Holidays or any sort of Christ-child merriment, festivals of lights or any real basis in modern memory. For starters, most of the traditions of today are assimilated from traditions of the past, as can be seen in many things we do almost subconsciously these days.  Take shaking hands for example: we are nearly always taught to shake with our right hand, but never why.  Historians posit that the handshake began as a symbolic transition of power between Assyrian rulers and the gods, where every New Years festival would be accompanied by the emperor clasping the hand of the statue (the Egyptian hieroglyphic for “to give” was a hand shake).

The Middle Ages is largely thought to be the cause of our obsession with the right hand in the shake.  Because most men would be right handed at this point in time (Anglo Saxon word for “weak”=lyft.  Nobody wants to seem lyft) extending your right arm would prove you were not packing a knife, and some people believe the shaking motion was meant to dislodge any weapons in the sleeve.  The left hand handshake, popular among Boy Scouts, is either an Ashanti ritual to prove you aren’t using your shield and trust the other person, or it’s a giant hoax by Baden Powell designed to rope more boys into the Boy Scouts.

As for the traditions of the Wintertime, the Ball dropping in Times Square began in 1904, to commemorate the opening of the New York Times on the newly christened Times Square.  Alfred Ochs lobbied to rename Longacre Square after his newly founded news press and as a result, Times Square was born.  Ochs decided to make his opening celebration a memorable one and spent vast amounts of money on lights and most famously, a 700 pound iron and wood monstrosity coated in 25 watt bulbs.  “From base to dome the giant structure was alight – a torch to usher in the newborn year…” –The New York Times.  So large was his celebration, he successfully replaced the Trinity church as the most popular place to be for New Years on the night he dropped the Ball.

The toasting that comes with New Years and nearly any other celebration or libation comes from a much older tradition.  The classic myth (which I hold to be awesome and metal regardless of the truth) is that the toast was a means of crashing glasses together to slosh your drink into the other revelers mugs on the off chance they were trying to poison you, thereby making them poison themselves.  The truth of it is less dark and harsh, most people used alcohols to celebrate many occasions and the only problem people had with the drinks were that it only appealed to 4 of the 5 senses.  You could see the pleasant hues, you could smell the mashed berries and fermentations, you could feel the liquid and taste it; but you could not hear it in any real capacity.  Clicking crystals together became the last piece to fully experiencing your drink, and in fact, many wine glasses were prized because of the tones they made.

Lastly, Mistletoe, the gnarly little berry-covered bloodsucker of the photosynthetic world, has become a marker for kissing zones.  One of the more famous examples of Mistletoe in motion was in the 1820, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Canyon by Washington Irving, he describes the mistletoe as put up “to the imminent peril of all the pretty house-maids”.  Thought to be a Scandinavian tradition, the hanging up of Mistletoe could be because the seeds seem to be coated in a white fluid and were associated with virility, making it the perfect zone for “closeness” (yessir, plants and semen have a lot of history together; just look up the mandrake).

Other origins stories tied it more closely to the Norse mythology.  Balder was the favorite son of Odin and his mother got an agreement from every substance on earth, except Mistletoe, that they would never hurt him.  Loki finds it out when a drunken god lets the secret to Balder’s strange immortality slip, then he fashions an arrow out of the Mistletoe.  He convinces the blind god of winter, Hodr, to have a William Tell contest with Balder because nothing can hurt him and Balder gets impaled.  The belief is that people use Mistletoe as a kissing booth because it will “never again be used as a weapon” that way.
Hodr, by the way can be pronounced Hoder or Hodor.  Disabled god of Winter who can be manipulated by the magician god and starts the end of world (Ragnarok)?  George R.R. Martin, I see where you’re going with that story…

Hopefully y’all learned something new, something cool or something different.  Look at the world with a questioning mind and even the most basic things we do are steeped in history and culture.

Citations, cuz every historian needs them:

Balls dropping


The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Canyon, Gent, Volume 2, Washington Irving, pp.30


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