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Ringing in the New Year

Christmas season in the Philippines officially starts with the Simbang Gabi, the nine-day series of pre-dawn daily Masses celebrated by Filipinos to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. After the Mass, the people feast on puto bumbong (rice cake) and other delicacies being sold by local entrepreneurs outside the Church.

But beyond the eating and the socialization that follow among the Church goers, the religious significance of Simbang Gabi is the people’s longing for the coming of the Messiah, the One who will not only set us free from sin, but deliver us from all evils like human trafficking, human rights violations, man-made poverty, and religious intolerance.

New Year’s celebrations in the Philippines, however, are devoid of any religious trimmings. Rather, the focus is more on welcoming the New Year and all that it symbolizes – new beginning, new relationship, new outlook, new attitude, and new life. For this reason alone, welcoming the New Year is the noisiest celebration in the Philippines. It is also the deadliest in terms of the number of people getting injured or killed by stray bullets, deadly firecrackers and other pyrotechnic devices.

Seattle has a unique way of welcoming the New Year. A large crowd gathers at Seattle Center where they can view the fireworks display on top of the 520-foot Space Needle to welcome the New Year. There are also those who view the fireworks from the Space Needle at other strategic places. Many families stay home to watch the grand finale fireworks from their television sets. There are some locals who spend New Year’s Eve in posh hotels, drinking and dancing through the night. When the clock strikes midnight on New Year, people sing “Auld Lang Syne” – the traditional song for ringing in the New Year and they hug one another and wish one another a happy year.

I notice that the New Year celebrations in Seattle are more subdued and less noisy. The fireworks display does not last more than thirty minutes. There are very few firecrackers. There are no gun shots fired in the air. You don’t see children roaming the streets to enjoy the festivities (could be due to cold weather). There are no people making loud noises. At homes or in hotels where people are partying, they have party horns or wear hats or what-have-you to welcome the New Year. There are no noisemakers like pots or pans or whistles. Simply put, New Year in the Philippines is noisier and fun.

New Year’s celebrations in the U.S. appear to be adult oriented. It’s mostly adults or young adults who go out to hotels to party or watch fireworks displays somewhere else. Not many children are seen in public.

In keeping with our Filipino tradition, my family prepares steak, noodles, pastries, meat balls and fruits that are round in shape to symbolize good luck. After watching the fireworks, we snack on “kakanin” or pastries. All the lights in the house are turned on before the clock strikes 12 midnight. The belief is that luck enters the house that is well-lighted.

As an expat in the U.S., what I miss the most about New Year’s celebration is the deafening noise that results from the combined effects of firecrackers, clanging pots and pans, and jeepneys and cars blowing their horns. I also miss ‘sensing’ the collective anticipation of the people for a New Year that is believed to bring luck and opportunities.

There is nothing like celebrating the New Year in one’s homeland. But I have come to accept celebrating the New Year in a foreign land, like Seattle, without the usual Filipino traditions and fanfare – and, it’s not easy. The redeeming factor is the presence of our daughters and grandchildren who enjoy the Filipino tradition of sharing our love and good wishes for one another.

Now, for the years to come, I will look forward to celebrating the New Year in another American city – Las Vegas, our second home.

Las Vegas, as everyone knows, is a party destination throughout the year. Hotels and casinos try to outdo each other putting on their own shows. On New Year’s Eve, streets leading to the famous Las Vegas Blvd. – famously known as the Strip – are closed early. One has to plan to go to the strip early if they want to watch the fireworks put up by the different hotels. As expected, restaurants are fully booked with party goers, who are dressed in the latest fashion.

But whether I’m in Seattle ringing in the New Year or in Las Vegas or in the Philippines, at one second past midnight on January 1, I always look back at the previous year and resolve to do better in the coming year. It’s a practice that I have done through the years, even if I am not able to keep all my resolutions. I know I am not alone in this because, according to some studies, many people are unable to keep their New Year’s resolutions anyway. One wonders why people still do it.

What matters, according to David Ropeik, Harvard University Extension School instructor, is by promising to fulfill our resolutions even for a moment, we give ourselves a feeling of more control over the uncertainty of the future.

Explains Ropeik, “New Year’s resolutions are examples of the universal human desire to have some control over what lies ahead, because the future is unsettlingly unknowable. Not knowing what’s to come means we don’t know what we need to know to keep ourselves safe. To counter that worrisome powerlessness, we do things to take control. We resolved to diet, to exercise, to quit smoking, and to start saving. It doesn’t even matter whether we hold our resolve and make good on those promises. Committing to them at least for a moment, gives us a feeling of more control over the uncertain days to come.”

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