This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for December 29, 2016, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
When you get old, a year seems to go by in an eye blink. Last year seems like last week. Here we are a few days before yet another New Year, and, while the old year still seems new to me, I’m sure most of my readers will be eager to celebrate the newcomer in one way or another. Although openly celebrating Christmas may seem taboo by those who want to be politically correct, New Year’s celebrations are acceptable, that is, if it’s the secular New Year.
Many religious communities also celebrate faith-related New Year’s. Some Christians, including Lutherans, celebrate the ecclesiastical New Year of Advent, starting this year in November, but often at the beginning of December. For the Jewish community, the New Year, Rosh Hashanah, begins in September or October. The Muslim New Year, Muharram, begins in September. The Chinese New Year begins on the new moon, between January 21 and February 20, this year falling on January 28. At one time, I would think that the Chinese New Year was a religious observance, but now is secular.
What is now upon us is the secular New Year, which is observed throughout much of the world. Celebrating the New Year, whether in America, Europe, or elsewhere, calls for fireworks and “firewater” in the eyes of many folks. Fireworks can be dangerous and so can too much “firewater.” A friend of mine blew off a couple of his fingers while exploding firecrackers when we were in high school.
Even more dangerous are the explosions that have occurred while manufacturing and/or selling fireworks. This year, on December 15, the San Pablito Fireworks Market in Tultepec, Mexico, blew up, killing 35 people and injuring dozens more. Mexican fireworks, which are illegal in the United States are very powerful. In 2014, a huge fireworks manufacturing plant blew up in Liling, China, killing 13 and severely injuring many more. China makes the most fireworks sold throughout the world.
In addition to China and Mexico, other countries which manufacture and export fireworks are India, Thailand, the Czech Republic, and a few others. You can tell from the huge international sale of fireworks how widespread and important the custom of setting off celebratory explosions are. In America, we tend to buy fireworks for the Fourth of July, Christmas, and New Year’s. Back in my childhood days in your know where, we were disposed to doing a lot more fireworks at Christmas than on New Year’s.
In East Bernard, more fireworks are bought at Christmas and New Year’s than for the Fourth of July. No doubt that’s because of the “Burn Bans” we usually have during the dryer months of June and July.
The very old traditions of shooting off firearms, as well as fireworks, at midnight on New Year’s Eve goes back to the ancient superstitious beliefs that if you made loud noises at midnight, you would drive away the evil spirits and keep them from entering the New Year. Today, of course, I guess any excuse for making loud noises at New Year’s is as good as any other.
Perhaps that’s true of consuming “firewater,” too. A toast for the New Year! And another! And another!” I did that when I was much younger, and I always fell asleep before midnight. The potency of “firewater” varies just like the potency of fireworks. While Mexico produces the most potent fireworks, I’m not sure who produces the most potent “firewater.” Everybody chooses his own poison.
The New Year’s Wendish “firewater” tradition in my mother’s family was the drinking of kuemmel (made from caraway seeds boiled in water and enlivened with Bourbon). Non-Wendish friends would poor in extra Bourbon to kill the taste of the caraway seeds. You either like caraway seeds or you gag at the thought of them.
All of my father’s ancestors came from villages very near Stuttgart, Germany, bringing to Texas their traditions, too. While most major cities in Germany celebrated the New Year by drinking lots and lots of beer, folks in the Stuttgart area celebrated the New Year with a local sparkling wine. Stuttgart is famous for producing fine wines and champagne. That may have been true of our Spitzenberger forebears, but the only “firewater” my father ever drank was beer, and lots of it. For New Year’s celebrations, my father’s “firewater” of choice was bottles of Pearl beer and/or bottles of Shiner beer. I never liked kuemmel and I never liked beer (regardless of brand), beer tasting the worse of the two to me. I do, however have some proclivity toward sparkling wine, whether from Stuttgart or Boonesville.
Fireworks and “firewater” in moderation! Be careful! Be safe! Happy New Year to all!
Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.