This is Old New Year’s Eve, January 13. Today and tomorrow I’m posting about this strange holiday from letters I wrote between 1996 and 2011, today 1996 – 2000.
1996: “Old New Year” sounds like an oxymoron, but in Macedonia it’s a party. Last weekend we packed up our toothbrushes and went to Macedonia. The celebration wasn’t the reason we went. It was a happy accident that made the trip special.
In Ochrid (a Slavic Macedonian town) and Struga (An Ethnic Albanian town) we visited the markets. After the market we took a walk along the Drini River. It has its source in Lake Ochrid at Struga. We heard a sound that was a cross between mariachi and klezmer music, done with a Balkan poly-rhythm and punctuated by the random clanging of “goat bells.” The band had a big bass drum that carried an advertisement written in Albanian. It was part of a procession that included a couple of dozen costumed dancers, several children and one adult man dressed as goats, several men in black and purple parkas dispensing a warm drink from kettles and a horse drawn cart with kegs of the drink and a sign that said, in Macedonian Cyrillic letters, “Hotel Jurid.” A parader handed me a cup of liquid that was hot, sweet and quite alcoholic. I thought that this might be a wedding, but I was wrong. This procession advertised the “old new year” celebration at a local hotel. In the calendar used by Orthodox Christians Christmas is January 7 making New Year’s Day January 14. This was New Year’s Eve. Every few hundred meters the procession stopped and the dancers turned their line into a circle dance, drawing in Saturday shoppers. The “goats” pranced wildly around the outside of the circle until “papa” goat, who looked like his costume was made of a shag carpet stapled together, turned a bright red from a combination of the exertion and alcohol. He finished the procession riding with the kegs.
After dinner we returned to Ochrid. On the square at the lakefront there was a big bonfire and bandstand. A costumed (fancy dress, not traditional) crowd was gathering. I saw a “planet of the apes” troupe and there was the inevitable shiek with his “harem.” This was Ochrid’s celebration of “Old New Year.” We flowed with the crowd for an hour or so, listening to comedians who traded lines in Macedonian and Albanian. Several folk bands, all with accordions and clarinets, and one country band (did I really hear “North to Alaska?”) entertained the revelers. We danced out onto the breakwater and saw bonfires all along the lakeshore. Some of the fires were unattended but most had people celebrating the Old New Year. After a warm day the wind had picked up off this tectonic mountain lake and we began to feel the cold. We stopped to warm ourselves at one of the fires and were immediately offered cold wine, hot kebabs and sausage cooked on coals shoveled from the fire. We stayed over an hour communicating in Russian and Albanian. One of the fire watchers wanted to know why Americans would speak Albanian and not a useful language like Turkish. “We live there.”
People came and went throughout the evening. One old couple took a place by the fire. The old woman in a “babushka” scarf had a face, smile, and particularly eyes that glowed in the firelight. She enjoyed the antics of the “young” people at the fire and wanted to share it with them for just a little while. One traveler was so drunk that the fire watchers found an old car seat put it in front of the fire, and put him on it. He couldn’t sit up straight, even when they tried to prop him up, so the fire watchers set him on a nearby park bench. One young man in a blue nylon parka and gold earrings made sure that Brian was well supplied with wine, perhaps too well supplied. (Brian got pretty silly by the time we headed back to our rooms.) Other fire watchers wanted some music so drove a car with a radio down the stairs to the lakeside walk. I don’t know how they got it back on the road. It WAS a Yugo so perhaps they carried it. Some of the partiers had fun driving the car up and down the lake front and playing “chicken” with the fire, breaking just in time to avoid driving though it. Mostly the revelers were content with each other’s company and enjoyed “tending” the fire, rearranging the logs and sending showers of sparks up over the lake. A dog worked the fringes of the fire looking for a stray kebab. Before midnight we walked back toward the town and its “civic” bonfire. At midnight there was a countdown from the stage and a short but beautiful fireworks display over the lake. Then the crowd wandered home or toward warm hotels with party bands that played most of the night.
1997: I just missed it, the big celebration and protest. January 14 is Old New Year and last night was Old New Year’s Eve. While we sat in a hotel in Zurich over half a million people partied through the streets of Belgrade in a massive celebration and protest because the municipal elections were not recognized by the government. There is no protest today, the first time in more than 50 days. Last night ran late enough to carry Serbia into the new day so as not to break the string. Today counts.
2000: All of Christendom is now in the year 2000. The nines turned over to zeros as January 13 turned to January 14 (our time) in areas still using the Julian calendar. I’ve always thought that “Old New Year” sounds like an oxymoron. So, apparently, do people here, because there was a concerted effort to rename the holiday “Serbian New Year.” (That’s because that’s when all their computers will crash, one Montenegrin wag said.) In the main square there was a huge stage with a big speaker stack set up. I asked several colleagues if they were going to the party. Most said no, which puzzled me until one friend said “Too many people, too much noise, too much politics.”
“Yes, the celebration is sponsored by Bulotovic’s party.” That is the party aligned with Slobodan Milosevic. So in 1997 the party in Belgrade was organized by the anti-Milosevic crowd, in 2000 the party in Podgorica is organized by the pro Milosevic crowd. Anti-Milosevic friends say a large crowd at the celebration would be used by Milosevic to argue that his is the most popular party. “Don’t go.” Most of our friends decided to stay away. We decided to do the same. So the party came to us. The volume of the popular Serb rock bands was loud enough to overcome the two panes of glass and overpower the radio in our flat over a mile away. The sound rolled around the walls of our quad of buildings and mixed itself into an unintelligible cacophony. Just before midnight Suzi strolled onto the Boulevard Lenin. The music had stopped and we heard a strident female voice telling us that the Serbs were like Christ, both suffering to save the world.
At Midnight there was a terrific fireworks display that went on for twenty minutes supplemented by small arms fire behind us, at the edge of town. During the display the rock bands gave way to a heavily amplified Gypsy brass band. Serbs will tell you, “Serbs like Gypsies.” And compared to Slovakia, Gypsies are treated more positively here even though that relationship has a large degree of paternalism and condescension. B-92 produced a brilliant documentary on Gypsy musicians called “Almost Serb.” The name says it all. But it was Gypsy musicians who trumpeted in the Old “Serb” New Year (just as they herald almost all Serb weddings). After the Old New Year fanfare the rock started again. According to one local journalist, about 15,000 people were in the main square, which was a small crowd. That is, perhaps, why the volume was so pumped up. No one could miss the celebration. We went to bed with loud rock rolling off the walls of our block of flats on Lenin Boulevard.
Tomorrow we will look at Old New Year after Milosevic’s fall. Tonight I am “off the Grid” driving the Alaska Highway to catch a ferry at Haines. I scheduled this for posting several days ago.