By Ana Leal
There is nothing magical about an old mattress on the side of the road, lumpy and tainted. But when I was growing up, my grandmother would excitedly point them out and exclaim, Eso es de buena suerte! “That’s good luck!” The old unwanted non-functional mass became a sign from the universe.
My grandmother had a whimsical way of turning unwanted and ugly things into something charming and full of purpose. Things that would otherwise go unnoticed or ruin my day would instead make me smile with the understanding that the universe was looking out for me, like bird poop and pennies on the ground.
As far as I am concerned, 2020 was a massive bird defecation on the world. For obvious reasons, such as the whole planet dealing with a pandemic and on a personal level, I was dealing with a break up in isolation. By the time October came around, I was petrified knowing that my mental health typically takes a dive as the winter sets in. I knew that it wouldn’t be pretty once my pandemic blues met my online learning blues and collided with my winter blues.
After talking with a friend, I realized that the trick to surviving the holidays was going to be in sparking little hints of magic in my spirit throughout the season, instead of avoiding the season all together. I thought about what sparked joy in me when I was growing up. I recruited my sister to brainstorm the traditions that brought us joy as kids. Among our many traditions, both Canadian and Colombian, what stuck out the most from our childhood was the good luck our grandmother injected into our lives.
My grandmother died in December 2012 due to a sudden heart attack. Thinking back, that was when my winter blues began to hit me hard. Growing up in between countries, I developed a strong sense of belonging in my family instead of the outside worlds I was navigating. My family became my social network and the foundation I used to understand those worlds. When my grandma died, she took her magic with her. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find messages from the universe anymore.
As my sister and I threw ideas back and forth, we both knew we wanted to do something special to mark the end of a fairly non-magical year. As silly as it might seem, we wanted to do our part in bringing some good luck to the world in 2021.
Fortunately for us, we grew up hearing about New Year’s traditions and thought it was time to bring them back into our lives. We posted on social media asking for people to share their traditions and we also looked up articles online. We wanted to know as many traditions as possible.
“Run around the block with a suitcase if you want to manifest travel in the upcoming year,” said our aunt Diana, who would be joining our celebration via Zoom.
Diana — who also suffered the loss of our grandmother, her own mother — asked us to share these hints of magic with her two sons who never got a chance to witness their grandma’s magic in action.
I realized that by sharing these moments with my seven and eight year-old cousins, I was sharing parts of my grandmother with them. One of the beauties of tradition is that it connects generations to each other and cultivates a sense of magic and hope between people who have never met.
A second realization came when friends from different backgrounds who had family in different countries started messaging in. Apparently, our grandmother wasn’t the only one sparking magic in her family.
“We put lentils in our pockets for good fortune, too!” said a message from a Brazilian friend.
“Eat 12 grapes at midnight and make a wish with everyone,” read a message from a friend born in Venezuela.
“Wear yellow underwear,” said a friend from El Salvador.
As friends and family started to report back to us with their anecdotes and quirks, we became more interested in not only the traditions themselves, but also what they were believed to bring.
“Let’s do them all,” I told my sister with wide eyes and a sense of purpose.
December 31, 2020
My five-foot-seven sister hunched below our dinner table, taking up the length of it while she was on all fours. My cousin and I stood over it wondering how we were all going to fit under the table while holding suitcases, a cup filled with twelve grapes in one hand, and a glass of wine in the other.
“No, you know what? I can go another year without a boyfriend. Tell Rafa to get under here, she is more important,” yelled my sister in a panic.
My cousin and I called for my aunt Rafa, who had been divorced for years now, and made her sit under the table. One article said that in parts of Latin America entering the new year sitting under a table would invite romantic love.
We needed to prioritize. It was almost midnight and we needed to figure out how to perform every tradition in a matter of minutes.
We scrambled around and shuffled our way under the table, strategically set up empty suitcases nearby, filled our pockets with dozens of uncooked lentils and started making a wish at every grape we scarfed down.
In the other room, my parents were having a video call with our aunt Diana and the other half of our family who weren’t able to join us. Her sons questioned what the four of us were doing in the background and laughed at us in their innocence.
It was five minutes to midnight and as is customary in Colombian households, the song “Faltan Cinco Pa’ Las 12” began to play. Every single year as far as I can remember this song has made me cry because it reminds me that I am missing someone I love. This year, I didn’t cry.
Perhaps none of us will get married, win the lottery or travel the world, but the little hints of magic and excitement that these traditions brought my family and I for one night were relief enough. These traditions tie us to our ancestors who did all the same rituals and trusted that the universe was looking out for them too. These traditions meant there was hope that life was going to get better and bring better things in the upcoming year. These traditions brought my grandma’s magic back to me and introduced it to my younger cousins.
For a few minutes, I didn’t feel like a lumpy mattress on the side of the road. I felt the same way that I imagine my grandma felt when pointing out messages from the universe, like a magical bearer of good news during dark times.