New Year Celebration
By Jeremy Goren

Carmen Díaz Espinel looked up amidst the lunchtime chaos of El Viejo Yayo, her family's restaurant on 5th Avenue in Brooklyn. She smiled, slipping flawlessly back into Brooklyn-accented English from the Dominican Spanish in which she had been joking with a waitress. Then she answered the question of how the Espinels celebrate New Year's with what she kept returning to as the most important facet of the holiday: "All the family gathers together."

New Year's celebrations in the United States-especially in New York-often center on going out on the town, partying with friends and strangers alike, and setting up a glorious New Year's kiss. But, for many immigrants who have brought New Year's traditions with them, the last night of the year often has a different tone.

The Espinels used to celebrate at home, but now they take over their own restaurant to play both guests and hosts for the celebration. Díaz explained that the extended family prepares itself a traditional meal of lechón asado, a whole roast pig, accompanied by tostones (plantains fried crispy), rice and beans, and salad for Noche Buena on December 24 and again on the last day of the year.

They celebrate the two nights in almost the same way, Díaz said, with the same food and dancing. However, on Noche Buena they exchange presents, while on New Year's they simply party and watch on TV. as the ball drops over Times Square. But they do not go there. "We always get together," Díaz said. "That's the way I grew up."

That's the way several generations of Espinels have grown up here in New York since Díaz's parents moved here decades ago. Back in Santo Domingo where the family is from, Díaz explained, people celebrate the same way her family does all these hundreds of miles away-with the addition of fireworks. That is not to say that the Espinels' party in Brooklyn is any tamer. "Last year," Díaz smiled, "the party went until 4 a.m." She said she was glad the family had maintained its traditions, but did not seem surprised in the least.

Other immigrant families in New York, however, may have done more blending of the traditions they brought with them to those they found here. Nelly Fishenzon, now 20, emigrated from Ukraine with her family in 1993. She indicated that incorporating U.S. traditions was just the latest in a long trail of celebratory adaptations for her Ukrainian Jewish family.

Tagged Jewish within a tradition of Russian Orthodoxy and under the rule of the Soviet Union, Fishenzon says her family-and most people she knew, Jewish and gentile alike-celebrated the last night of the year in what Americans would consider traditional Christmas fashion: A fir tree decorated with lights and stars, Santa Claus, and presents awaiting the children the next morning.

But, she said, "It had nothing to do with Jesus or religion or anything like that." She explained that they focused instead on more secular versions of renewal and spending time with family.

Like people in the United Status, Fishenzon said, Ukrainians watched concerts on TV. that counted down to midnight when they would pop a bottle of "very, very good" Soviet champagne. She added, however, that "there was not such a thing of people kissing each other."

Since moving to the United States, the family has begun to embrace the Jewish heritage it had been forced to neglect for so long. That has changed their New Year's celebrations. Fishenzon said that she has begun to observe Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year, which occurs in early fall. (This year is 5764 in the Jewish lunar calendar, marking the years since God created the world, according to tradition.) Also, the family has replaced its New Year's tree with an electric menorah during this holiday season.

Fishenzon says, however, that many of her fellow Russian-Jewish immigrant friends here still put up the tree in addition to the menorah. "It is beautiful; it does mark the season, and it's tradition."

Fishenzon remarked that her family's observance is "very different from everyone [in the United Status], but it is not a problem. That's how we do it." Having found a community here in Brooklyn with many shared traditions has helped that feeling of belonging. She said feels free to go out and party with friends instead of spending New Year's at home.

"It's a family gathering," Fishenzon said of December 31 but added that, "[Staying home] is not a big thing."

Lima, who moved here from Hong Kong seven years ago and who did not give a last name, echoed Carmen Díaz's emphasis on the importance of spending New Year's with the family. Of course, the start of the New Year Lima spoke of was the Chinese New Year, which falls this year on January 22. It will mark the dawning of the year 4702, the year of the Monkey, according to the Chinese zodiac.

Each year in the Chinese calendar carries the name of one of twelve animals. Each year and all people born in it display traits of that animal, according to tradition. So the coming year should bring with it the creativity, intelligence, cheerfulness and energy of the Monkey.

Chinese New Year celebrations, with their dragon- and lion-dancing, parades, and firecrackers have become a draw even for non-Chinese in the United States. Many of the customs-including the prevalence of the color red, representing fire-are intended to scare off evil spirits for the coming year. Traditional observance of the holiday lasts for fifteen days.

In addition to what most non-Chinese see of the celebration, Lima said, married relatives give packets of money to children, and everyone gets new clothes and other items in the spirit of renewal. "We do away with old things."

Lima showed a lot of enthusiasm for the mainstream U.S. New Year's celebration as well as for her family's traditional observance and said that she enjoys both traditions fully.

Back to The Citizen Page


This website is brought to you by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by grants from the Charles H. Revson Foundation, the Independence Community Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation, the New York Times Foundation and visitors like you.