Happy New Year! I hope everyone has a wonderful start to 2019. This is, of course, the time for resolutions to begin… what are your New Year’s resolutions this year?
This blog post was originally published on December 31, 2015.
Currently, most people around the world begin New Year’s celebrations on December 31, the last day of the Gregorian calendar. But as with so much in the modern world, it wasn’t always so. Although people have celebrated the beginning of a new year for millennia, astrological or agricultural events typically marked the new year.
The earliest recorded celebration of the beginning of a new year was in ancient Babylon, some 4,000 years ago. For Babylonians, the new year began with the first full moon following the vernal equinox, a date falling in late March. It was a massive religious festival that required a different ritual every day for 11 days.
Chinese New Year was tied to the second new moon after the winter solstice. In Egypt the new year began with the annual flooding of the Nile, coincident with the rising of the star Sirius.
For early Romans, each new year began with the vernal equinox. A year had 304 days divided into 10 months. Over time, the calendar year deviated significantly from the sun year. In 46 B.C. Julius Caesar consulted astronomers and mathematicians to solve the problem. He added 90 days to that year, adjusted the length of months, and declared January 1 as the first day of the year. January honors the Roman god of beginnings—Janus—who has two faces that look forward and back. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII established January 1 as New Year’s Day for Christians.
We’re all familiar with New Year’s celebrations that involve eating special foods for good luck on New Year’s Eve and/or New Year’s Day: legumes, such as lentils or black-eyed peas, signaling financial success; pork, associated with prosperity; ring-shaped cakes and pastries, because the year has come full circle; sometimes cakes or puddings with something hidden inside, to bring especially good luck to the one who gets the nut or prize. Sometimes the number of courses (3, 5, 7, 9, or 12) are specified. In several Spanish-speaking countries, eating 12 grapes, accompanied by 12 wishes, as the clock strikes 12 is traditional. (In Portugal, it’s 12 raisins.)
Making a lot of noise—shooting guns, banging pots and pans, blaring car horns, playing loud music, setting off firecrackers—is supposed to scare away bad luck and evil spirits. Partying with family and/or friends is common, as is fireworks displays or other ritual midnight activities.
In the U.S., the dropping of the giant ball in Times Square, begun in 1907, is now watched by millions. Spin-offs involve publicly dropping items that represent an area’s culture, geography, or history: the Peach Drop in Atlanta, GA; Pickle Drops in Dillsburg, PA, and Mount Olive, NC; the Possum Drop in Tallapoosa, GA; Wylie the Walleye Fish Drop in Port Clinton, OH; the Bologna Drop in Lebanon, PA; a Watermelon Drop in Vincennes, IN; the Midnight Muskrat Dive in Princess Anne, MD; a Big Cheese Drop in Plymouth, WI; a Pine Cone Drop in Flagstaff, AZ; a Grape Drop in Temecula Valley, CA; a Donut Drop in Hagerstown, MD; a Flip-flop Drop in Folly Beach, SC; a Wrench Drop in Mechanicsburg, PA; Beach Ball Drop in Panama City Beach, FL; the Music Note Drop in Nashville, TN; Chile Drop in Las Cruces, Mexico. Surely I’ve missed some! Please feel free to comment on your favorites.
In England, the national icon is the tolling of Big Ben. Similar striking clocks or bells are widespread in Europe. In Albania, people watch a lot of comedy shows because one should enter the new year laughing and full of joy. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, playing the Czechoslovak national anthem at midnight honors the time they were one nation. In Turkey and Russia, New Year’s involves many of the traditions of Christmas in other parts of the world. In Costa Rica, running across the street with luggage is to bring travel and new adventures in the year ahead. But in Venezuela, only those traveling in January pull a suitcase around the house. In Japan, people clean their homes and Buddhist temples ring their bells 108 times, representing the mental states that lead people to take unwholesome actions.
In the Philippines, many wear new, bright, colorful clothes with circular patterns. In Brazil, wearing white on the beach to ring in the new year is supposed to bring good luck. In Italy, wearing red underwear on New Year’s Eve is traditional. Spanish tradition holds that wearing new red underwear brings good luck. In Venezuela, the underwear is yellow.
In Scotland, Hogmanay is celebrated with First-Footing (going to each other’s houses with gifts of whiskey and sometimes a lump of coal); Edinburgh hosts a 4 or 5 day festival, beginning on December 28th, including cannon fire and fireworks displays.
North and South Korea celebrate New Years twice, a Lunar New Year which varies, and a Solar New Year which is always January 1.
The practice of making resolutions for the new year is thought to have been popular first among the ancient Babylonians.
And thus we come full circle—a fine New Year’s tradition! What are your favorite traditions?
Today is Christmas, but whatever holiday you celebrate, I hope you and your loved ones have a wonderful, relaxing holiday and a great end to the year.
Fogg Wins A Wager Day: From Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, in 1872, Fogg walked into the saloon of the Reform Club in London, and said “Here I am, gentlemen!” exactly 79 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds after starting his trip. He won a 20,000 pound wager.
VL: I’ve often said that I’ve never met a boring writer. Here to prove that point is my interview with Bradley Harper, mystery writer and so much more!
VL: Let’s start with your debut novel, A Knife in the Fog. I loved it! I have been a fan of Sherlock Holmes mysteries since my college days, and when I read your book I found you had the tone spot-on. You evoked the time and the place in a way that took me there—which is no small feat. What drew you to writing a murder mystery in the first place?
BH: Doctors love mysteries in general, as the diagnostic process is much like solving a mystery. You collect data points and, after testing various hypotheses, arrive at a plausible diagnosis. A Pathologist does practically nothing else. Also, I fell in love with the Holmes stories the summer I discovered them at age 13. If you’re going to spend hundreds or thousands of hours writing a novel, it should be in a genre you know and love.
VL: So that’s why you are drawn to mysteries, and why this sort of mystery, but how did you come up with this particular plot?
BH: I discovered the four-year gap between the first and second Holmes stories, and that the Ripper murders occurred in the middle of that period. I became excited at the idea of a novel involving Doyle in the hunt for the killer, and explaining why he returned to Holmes after being soured on crime fiction due to his meager payment (twenty-five pounds), for the first one.
VL: I admire the way you combined real people—i.e., Doyle, his real-life influence Joseph Bell, and Margaret Harkness, a real woman of the time—and wove this wonderful fiction around them.
BH: I’m glad I found Miss Harkness. She was an author and Suffragette who lived in the East End of London for a while to do research for her novels featuring the working poor.
VL: I like her character a lot. I hope to see more of her! But let’s change gears here, and look at your work before you retired and started writing fiction. Where did you attend med school?
BH: Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, 1979-83.
VL: Well, that answers my next question about whether your medical training preceded joining the Army.
BH: I started as an Airborne Qualified Infantry Officer and at one time was a platoon leader in a Mechanized Infantry Battalion. Due to the draw down after Viet Nam, I was transferred to the Transportation Corps and ran a motor pool in Izmir, Turkey, as part of a NATO Headquarters there. One of the four walls of my motor pool was the remnant of a Roman aqueduct. Thirty-seven years later, I retired as the Deputy Assistant Surgeon General for the US Army in the Pentagon.
BH: During my Army years, I enjoyed many extraordinary experiences. This picture was taken shortly after receiving an award from the Knights of Malta for my assistance to the Italian Army in their preparation for deployment to Afghanistan as part of a NATO mission. The advanced first aid course I helped found has since become mandatory training for all Italian land forces prior to deployment, and was recently taught to the Italian Presidential security detail.
I also had the unique experience of serving as the acting commander of the US Army Hospital in Heidelberg, Germany, on the fiftieth anniversary of General Patton’s death there. I presided over the commemoration ceremony involving both US military and local German dignitaries.
VL: Wow. Quite a progression! Congratulations. But hold on. If you didn’t join the Army to go to medical school, why did you join?
BH: My draft number was 84, so I knew as soon as I graduated from college I was going into the military. I decided to take an ROTC scholarship for my last two years. (My original goal was to be a high school Spanish and History teacher). One day relatively early in my service I went on sick call for an injured ankle, and the doctor who saw me was such an unpleasant person I decided that I and my soldiers deserved better care. So I went to med school with the goal of seeing to it that soldiers and their families got the care they deserved.
VL: What made you stick with it?
BH: I discovered I liked being part of something larger than myself, and found living abroad an amazing experience.
VL: What were the best and worse things about your time in the military?
BH: I enjoyed being reassigned every two to three years into a new job. That allowed me to take on various roles and to develop a wide skill set. Frequent moves did limit my social circle, however, and I didn’t have what I would consider a close friend as an adult until after I retired. Fortunately, I had the love and support of Chere, my wife of 45 years.
BH: In the five years since I retired, she has joined me in my Santa gigs as well. She’s wonderful.
VL: When you addressed the Central Virginia Chapter of Sisters in Crime—an excellent presentation, by the way—you mentioned having a $1.5 million bounty on your head at one time. Tell me about that.
BH: While serving as the Command Surgeon for U.S. Army South, I spent time in Colombia overseeing a joint training course with the Colombian Army. That’s when the bounty was offered.
VL: I never expected to meet anyone wanted-dead-or-alive!
BH: You still haven’t! The bounty was for anyone who could deliver me to the FARC alive. As the highest ranking U.S. officer in the area, I was considered very valuable as a live hostage to ransom. (Offer no longer valid, by the way.)
VL: Hmmm. If there’s no longer a profit in kidnapping you, I might as well get on with the interview. You are Board Certified in Anatomic and Clinical Pathology, and you said you’ve conducted over two-hundred autopsies. What sorts of forensic autopsies did you perform that subsequently informed your writing?
BH: All military pathologists undergo forensic training. We are often sent to remote locations, and are the only game in town. I am not Board Certified in Forensics, however, so any cases which might go to trial would be sent to the nearest military forensic specialist. The cases I did were crib deaths, training accidents, motor vehicle accidents, suicides, or people who died on the job unexpectedly. Two suicides by standing in front of a train and one accident involved being run over by light rail informed my writing in one of the final scenes in A Knife in the Fog. I was involved in one case while in Germany which had mixed jurisdiction between the German civil authorities and the US, so I attended the autopsy performed by my German colleague, and my notes were used to prosecute the US serviceman involved.
VL: You’ve told us quite a bit about your work as Santa. But I’m curious about something you mentioned in the SinC-CV presentation. What prompted you to volunteer in Galicia? Apparently it wasn’t a one-off. Do you do this annually? How long does that take? Are you actually walking the pilgrims’ route?
BH: After I retired from the Army I walked the Camino to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. It is an ancient pilgrimage route begun in the ninth century, and millions have walked The Way to the bones of St. James as an act of atonement or contrition. I did it to give me some time to ponder what direction my life would take after thirty-seven years in the military. After a transformative experience I have written about and shared on a local radio program—which is too long to go into here—I wanted to give back, and to help others realize their dreams. I speak five languages other than English, and being functional in so many tongues allowed me to assist pilgrims from most of Europe and, of course, the English-speaking world. I got back as much as I gave. This is the first year I have not volunteered after five consecutive summers. These were fifteen-day stints—with my wife—first in the pilgrim office, and later as a hospitalero, or host, in a pilgrim hostel.
VL: Surely you realize that mentioning a transformative experience more or less in passing means I’m likely to come back to you for more about that! But forging ahead for now, what about your personal life? Do you have hobbies or pets?
BH: I read incessantly, and swim for fitness when my shoulder allows. No other hobbies to speak of, and no pets. I travel a lot, still. Perhaps when I go from the “go-go” phase of life to the “go-slow” or the “no-go,” I’ll add a pet to my life.
VL: I’d like to end with info on your future project(s). What are you working on now?
BH: I am fortunate to have a two-book contract with Seventh Street Books, and am involving my heroine from book one, Margaret Harkness, in trying to stop an assassination attempt on Queen Victoria during her Diamond Jubilee ceremony. It will be titled Queen’s Gambit.
VL: When might fans hope to have Queen’s Gambit in hand?
BH: It’s scheduled for release in October of 2019, on the one-year anniversary of the debut of my first book.
VL: What, if anything, would you like to share with other writers about how you balance family life, Santa duty, volunteer activities, and your writing life?
BH: I don’t multi-task. I don’t believe anyone can accomplish their best work unless they are entirely focused on the task in front of them. So when I write, I go all-in. I do ponder plot points and issues when I’m not writing, but when I am playing Santa, for example, I am totally focused on the people who have come to see Santa. These encounters are brief, but if I can communicate to them that I genuinely wish them well, they will remember that for a long time after.
The best advice I got in med school was: when the body is tired, work the mind. When the mind is tired, work the body. Eat well, walk, laugh, engage with those around you, be grateful for every day, and life will sort itself out.
VL: Let’s end with those words of wisdom! Thank you, Brad, for sharing so generously of your time, your experiences, and your thoughts. I look forward to wrangling another blog sometime down the road!
Follow Bradley Harper online at bharperauthor.com. You will find pictures and notifications of appearances, as well as bits of off-beat information about Victorian England, forensics, and whatever strikes his fancy! You can even get info about Harper’s compilation of four short stories.
After I retired from the Army, (37 years, 4 months, and 9 days, and yes, someone WAS counting!) I grew a beard because, hey, I could! It came out white, which at my age was no surprise. My wife began hinting that I should try being a Santa. I was very unsure about that suggestion, but over time decided that when she was eight she decided she wanted to marry Santa Claus. So, if she was to become Mrs. Claus … you get the idea.
I auditioned for a local park, and to my surprise, and more than a small amount of panic, I got one of the slots. Now I was in for it. I began walking through the toy section of stores. I memorized “The Night Before Christmas.” I speak various languages to differing degrees of proficiency, so memorized how to say “what would you like for Christmas” in Spanish, French, Italian, and German, (the park gets a fair number of international visitors.) I didn’t have to understand the reply. A smile and knowing wink is universal.
Day three in the throne. I got this! It’s kinda fun. As long as I don’t promise more than “I’ll look into it,” I’m golden.
Then life, as it is known to do, threw me a curve ball. One of the young ladies serving as an elf comes up to me and says, “Santa, you’re about to see three kids. They’ve been orphans for the past year. The foster parents keeping them have just been approved to adopt them, and they want YOU to tell them!”
I took about one deep breath, and there they were. No pressure, right? The girl was the oldest. Around twelve, she was obviously a non-believer by now, but playing along for her younger brothers. The ten-year-old was unsure. That phase where they don’t really think you’re real, but don’t want to blow their chances, just in case. The eight-year-old still had the faith. His eyes were large, brown, and round.
Unsure what to say at the moment, I fell back on the old stand-by, “What would you like for Christmas?” They said something, but honestly I didn’t hear a word, thinking to myself, “What can I say? What CAN I say?”
Then it came to me. I took another deep breath and said, “Those are great ideas. I’ll look into it, but I have something for you today.”
“What’s that Santa?” the oldest asked, obviously the spokesman for the group.
“A family,” I said.
They looked puzzled, but when I explained they would not have to leave the foster family, that they could stay together, well, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Yeah, I teared up just now, again, though it was six years ago.
So what did I learn? In the Hero’s Journey, the Hero comes back changed by their Quest. Though I didn’t leave my throne, I had just been on quite a ride.
I learned that I wanted to be Santa Claus more than anything else in the world. I fully embraced the role after that. Santa has made me a kinder, and more patient, man. With my beard, I stand out anywhere I go. I have to be careful what I say and how I act. I never know where or when a child might see me. I have to be in tune with “the better angels of my nature,” whenever I am in public. (OK, I can’t eat ribs in public anymore. But it’s worth it!)
Santa has made me a better person. When I put on my super hero costume and go forth to fight for happiness, I never promise a toy, but I always offer a hug.
I have a photo of my back side as I am hugging an elderly black man. His name was Walter, and I met him at a gift exchange at an Alzheimer’s day care center. Every patient got a gift bag selected for them by the staff. I handed them out and hugged each one. Walter’s face is beaming, and a trick of the lighting perhaps, but I see a small halo around his head.
I got the photo from his daughter who tracked me down. She said her dad had been abandoned as a child, and had never had a visit from Santa his entire life.
The next year I was told that Walter had passed. His daughter told the director of the daycare center the photo of me hugging him had become his favorite, and at his funeral his daughter had that picture blown up and placed on an easel beside his open coffin.
That taught me how powerful even one moment can be in another person’s life. Don’t hold back. This moment may never come again.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said that a man can never cross a river twice, for each time both he and the river will have changed. Every time I assume the role, it may be the first time for whoever I come into contact with. I may define Santa for the rest of their life.
No pressure, right? But here’s the thing. Just like Dumbo and his magic feather, the magic is not in the robe. It was inside me all the time. I just needed the license the costume gave me to tap into it.
You may not wear a red suit, but I hereby deputize you to share love and joy, wherever you go. You can do it. Find that better angel that has been inside you all along, and let them breathe. You, and all those around you, will be the better for it.
PS: Three nights ago, a little girl around five came up to me with her letter to Santa. On it were several letters carefully inscribed but not forming any words I could discern.
Me: “What does it say, Dear?”
Little Girl: “I don’t know, Santa. I can’t read!”
The adventure continues.
PPS: My wife was hired the following year as Mrs. Claus. Adventures are more fun with the right companions.