Killing the Old Year

Throughout the year, people make trinkets to commemorate the bad things. A poor harvest might be represented by an ugly corn doll, while the death of a loved one might be written on a scrap of paper. The form of the trinket varies, as these are small items created as personal acts. These trinkets are saved until the end of the year, when people gather together to celebrate the passing of the old and the birth of the new.

They take all those trinkets, and they throw them into a fire. The ritual is known as killing the old year.

Nobody remembers how the ritual began, it isn’t associated with any specific god or religion or cult, and is a commonly accepted tradition throughout a number of lands. Some communities build large bonfires where everyone comes together to kill the old year. In some places, once this fire has died out, the youth will take turns pissing on the ashes, but this is not something that mature adults ever do. In others the old year is killed simply by throwing trinkets into the hearth fire. Still others will light just the trinkets themselves on fire, one at a time or in groups, as if killing the old year is too much to ask of the same fire that keeps one warm in the winter.

Because nobody knows exactly how the tradition began, or when, or where, there are a number of different explanations for why the tradition exists. Some priests suggest that it is a sacrifice to the gods, offering the work of having made the trinkets in exchange for a better life in the new year. It is commonly said among wizards that burning the trinkets is a way of threatening the new year, saying that “we killed the old one, and we’ll do the same to you.” And there are those wise women and witches who claim that to burn the trinkets “unmakes” the bad things in the minds of those who suffered through them, softening the pain of losing a loved one or the like.

There is a counterpart to this ritual, which is not acted upon nearly as often, of creating small trinkets to commemorate good things that have happened as well. This is not like building a statue to honor a founder, or painting a mural in a temple, but is a personal act, a way of remembering a marriage, or a birth, or an exceptional harvest and, in taking the time to make the trinket, to thank the gods for their generosity.

These happy trinkets are saved and given as gifts or passed down through the generations of a family, but they are never made during the year that something good happens, but only after the coming new year celebration. It is considered bad luck to create such a trinket until after the old year has been killed, lest it grow jealous and warp that good luck or otherwise turn it into something evil.


Artwork: “Around the Fire” by Yan’ Dargent, from Contes bleus by Édouard Laboulaye, 1864.

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