New Year, Old Regrets

From the ancient Babylonians to Victorian England, the year’s end has been a time for self-reproach and general misery

for the Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: ALAN WITSCHONKE

I don’t look forward to New Year’s Eve. When the bells start to ring, it isn’t “Auld Lang Syne” I hear but echoes from the Anglican “Book of Common Prayer”: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”

At least I’m not alone in my annual dip into the waters of woe. Experiencing the sharp sting of regret around the New Year has a long pedigree. The ancient Babylonians required their kings to offer a ritual apology during the Akitu festival of New Year: The king would go down on his knees before an image of the god Marduk, beg his forgiveness, insist that he hadn’t sinned against the god himself and promise to do better next year. The rite ended with the high priest giving the royal cheek the hardest possible slap.

There are sufficient similarities between the Akitu festival and Yom Kippur, Judaism’s Day of Atonement—which takes place 10 days after the Jewish New Year—to suggest that there was likely a historical link between them. Yom Kippur, however, is about accepting responsibility, with the emphasis on owning up to sins committed rather than pointing out those omitted.

In Europe, the 14th-century Middle English poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” begins its strange tale on New Year’s Day. A green-skinned knight arrives at King Arthur’s Camelot and challenges the knights to strike at him, on the condition that he can return the blow in a year and a day. Sir Gawain reluctantly accepts the challenge, and embarks on a year filled with adventures. Although he ultimately survives his encounter with the Green Knight, Gawain ends up haunted by his moral lapses over the previous 12 months. For, he laments (in J.R.R. Tolkien’s elegant translation), “a man may cover his blemish, but unbind it he cannot.”

New Year’s Eve in Shakespeare’s era was regarded as a day for gift-giving rather than as a catalyst for regret. But Sonnet 30 shows that Shakespeare was no stranger to the melancholy that looking back can inspire: “I summon up remembrance of things past, / I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, / And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.”

For a full dose of New Year’s misery, however, nothing beats the Victorians. “I wait its close, I court its gloom,” declared the poet Walter Savage Landor in “Mild Is the Parting Year.” Not to be outdone, William Wordsworth offered his “Lament of Mary Queen of Scots on the Eve of a New Year”: “Pondering that Time tonight will pass / The threshold of another year; /…My very moments are too full / Of hopelessness and fear.”

Fortunately, there is always Charles Dickens. In 1844, Dickens followed up the wildly successful “A Christmas Carol” with a slightly darker but still uplifting seasonal tale, “The Chimes.” Trotty Veck, an elderly messenger, takes stock of his life on New Year’s Eve and decides that he has been nothing but a burden on society. He resolves to kill himself, but the spirits of the church bells intervene, showing him a vision of what would happen to the people he loves.

Today, most Americans recognize this story as the basis of the bittersweet 1946 Frank Capra film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” As an antidote to New Year’s blues, George Bailey’s lesson holds true for everyone: “No man is a failure who has friends.”

How Potatoes Conquered the World

It took centuries for the spud to travel from the New World to the Old and back again

For the Wall Street Journal

At the first Thanksgiving dinner, eaten by the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims in 1621, the menu was rather different from what’s served today. For one thing, the pumpkin was roasted, not made into a pie. And there definitely wasn’t a side dish of mashed potatoes.

In fact, the first hundred Thanksgivings were spud-free, since potatoes weren’t grown in North America until 1719, when Scotch-Irish settlers began planting them in New Hampshire. Mashed potatoes were an even later invention. The first recorded recipe for the dish appeared in 1747, in Hannah Glasse’s splendidly titled “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, Which Far Exceeds Any Thing of the Kind yet Published.”

By then, the potato had been known in Europe for a full two centuries. It was first introduced by the Spanish conquerors of Peru, where the Incas had revered the potato and even invented a natural way of freeze-drying it for storage. Nevertheless, despite its nutritional value and ease of growing, the potato didn’t catch on in Europe. It wasn’t merely foreign and ugly-looking; to wheat-growing farmers it seemed unnatural—possibly even un-Christian, since there is no mention of the potato in the Bible. Outside of Spain, it was generally grown for animal feed.

The change in the potato’s fortunes was largely due to the efforts of a Frenchman named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737-1813). During the Seven Years’ War, he was taken prisoner by the Prussians and forced to live on a diet of potatoes. To his surprise, he stayed relatively healthy. Convinced he had found a solution to famine, Parmentier dedicated his life after the war to popularizing the potato’s nutritional benefits. He even persuaded Marie-Antoinette to wear potato flowers in her hair.

Among the converts to his message were the economist Adam Smith, who realized the potato’s economic potential as a staple food for workers, and Thomas Jefferson, then the U.S. Ambassador to France, who was keen for his new nation to eat well in all senses of the word. Jefferson is credited with introducing Americans to french fries at a White House dinner in 1802.

As Smith predicted, the potato became the fuel for the Industrial Revolution. A study published in 2011 by Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian in the Quarterly Journal of Economics estimates that up to a quarter of the world’s population growth from 1700 to 1900 can be attributed solely to the introduction of the potato. As Louisa May Alcott observed in “Little Men,” in 1871, “Money is the root of all evil, and yet it is such a useful root that we cannot get on without it any more than we can without potatoes.”

In 1887, two Americans, Jacob Fitzgerald and William H. Silver, patented the first potato ricer, which forced a cooked potato through a cast iron sieve, ending the scourge of lumpy mash. Still, the holy grail of “quick and easy” mashed potatoes remained elusive until the late 1950s. Using the flakes produced by the potato ricer and a new freeze drying method, U.S. government scientists perfected instant mashed potatoes, which only requires the simple step of adding hot water or milk to the mix. The days of peeling, boiling and mashing were now optional, and for millions of cooks, Thanksgiving became a little easier. And that’s something to be thankful for.