Richard TurenThis is my annual Christmas/New Year's column. On the one hand, I need to make an effort to be profound, since a significant number of readers apparently still take the holidays seriously. On the other hand, I can be a bit more frivolous than usual, since I suspect that only five or six of you will have the time this week to actually read what I'm writing.

You received this issue of Travel Weekly just before Christmas, hardly the ideal time for a columnist to have much of an impact. Christmas week just doesn't allow for nonessential reading. So to save you valuable shopping time, let me state the point of this piece up front, so you can get to the mall and face the challenges at hand.

Travel is, despite the growth of the European Union and the sprouting of America's fast-food-franchise shacks worldwide, still not homogenized. It just hasn't happened.

Travel outside America and you find delightful, joyful, intriguing differences in the way the locals celebrate their lives. I am optimistic about the coming year because it really is different out there, and I want each and every one of my clients to experience that before they pass on to the great Panera in the sky.

Case in point: New Year's celebrations.

Travel around the world as the clock strikes 12, and you will experience an amazing array of celebrations and exquisite social customs that serve to highlight the uniqueness of every culture on Earth.

The Portuguese, for instance, find a nice bunch of 12 grapes. At exactly midnight, they eat each grape, one at a time, to bring them 12 months' worth of good living in the coming year.

In Ecuador, families create a scarecrow that represents a person they want out of their lives in the year to come. The scarecrow, stuffed with newspapers and firecrackers, sits outside the front door. At midnight, the dummy goes up in smoke. Travel agents should have no trouble coming up with appropriate scarecrow models.

South Africa rings in the new year with the somewhat odd combination of ringing church bells and gunshots fired into the air. So if you're visiting, it is best to look up, since it is another New Year's tradition, in certain sections of Johannesburg, to toss old refrigerators, microwaves and beds from high-rises to the street below.

In Japan, homeowners celebrate Oshogatsu by hanging ropes of straw across the front facade. This represents good luck and future happiness. But equally important is the tradition of laughing exactly at midnight. The Japanese literally laugh-in the new year. This is one I've copied over the years.

The Germans don't try as hard to laugh. Instead, one of their New Year's customs involves dropping molten lead into cold water. The future year is then ordained by the shape produced in this process.

Female residents of major cities in Brazil begin the new year by wearing brightly colored underwear. Yellow panties are worn by those wishing for money, and red are for those seeking a year filled with amorous adventures. The obvious question is, "How would anyone know?"

Russia's Lake Baikal, referred to as "The Pearl of Siberia," is the deepest lake in the world, plunging to a depth of 5,314 feet. American tourists experience it on portions of the Trans-Siberian Express route. To celebrate the new year, professional divers cut a hole in the lake's ice and then plunge in. One of the divers carries a full size New Year's tree, which is planted at the bottom of the lake. Other divers, dressed as Father Frost and the Ice Maiden, then surround the tree and do a little diver dance. Underwater photographs are taken, and the divers then try to pick their way back up through the ice.

Memo to Siberia: It might be easier and safer just to have a little fruitcake.

The Dutch take a practical approach to celebrating the new year. They collect Christmas trees and burn them in street bonfires, accompanied by fireworks. No word on whether or not they inhale.

Of course, no one is really sure that New Year's actually marks the new year. In 46 B.C., Julius Caesar issued an edict saying Jan. 1 would henceforth be known as New Year's Day. The Romans saw the day as a dedication to Janus, who was the god of gates, doors and beginnings. So in our culture, this might be called Home Depot Day.

The very first month of each year was called January in his honor. The problem with Janus, of course, was that he had two faces -- one facing forward, the other backward. I suppose it is up to us to choose which face we want to follow.

As we celebrate the differences among us, in preparation for (in Oprah's words) "still another chance to get it right," I think we should all take note of the fact that scientists in Australia recently demonstrated that we humans share about 70% of our DNA with sea sponges. So let's not take ourselves too seriously in the year to come.

Regarding the matter of New Year's resolutions, let me suggest only two that our industry might pursue.

First, let's try to get residents of red states to travel to blue states, and vice versa. It can't hurt to get to know one another a bit better.

And let's see if we can take on the monumental challenge of convincing more than 28% of the adults in our country that it might be worthwhile to actually hold a valid passport.

I am really looking forward to another year of sharing this space with you, dear readers. I hope that you get to realize more than a few of your own dreams as you work hard to fulfill the dreams of others.

Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at [email protected].

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