Before we headed to my native Peru for the holidays, I told my friends Murray and Fraser to pack brand new yellow underwear.
‘It’s an old tradition for New Year’s Eve,’ I tried to explain.
They thought I was joking.
But when they saw Lima’s streets covered with yellow decorations and street vendors (many of them dressed in yellow from head to toe) displaying yellow panties on one arm and yellow briefs on the other – all carefully arranged according to size, my friends quickly changed their minds.
‘Give us two of those,’ they said to the street vendor standing outside a supermarket.
The short woman quickly eyed their body contours and handed the gringo twins the yellow briefs.
‘Why yellow?’ they asked.
‘It brings you good luck in the New Year,’ she replied, before wandering down the street waving yellow underwear at people like magic wands, with her tiny daughter clinging onto her skirt. The youngster could barely keep hold of her yellow melting popsicle.
I cautioned them, ‘You’ll have to slip into your new yellow underwear just before midnight.’
Bewilderment clouded their faces.
At a friend’s house, where we were to ring in the New Year, yellow roses and a crisp yellow linen tablecloth adorned the dining table. Rounds of Pisco Sours and empanadas were served. My gringo friends shared their travelling plans, which included the Gold Museum and, of course, Machu Picchu. Our host recommended a few beaches in Lima which, few people know, offer world-class surfing. She also told them not to leave Peru without seeing Huaráz – in the highlands. Others advised them not to miss the Amazon. The conversation kept my twin friends entertained.
Just before midnight everyone at the celebration suddenly bolted from the table and headed for a washroom, an empty bedroom or a hidden corner. Doors opened and closed, shoes stomped on the floor. Some guests even went under the dining-room table to slip into their new yellow underwear. Murray and Fraser went to the kitchen where, despite being joined by strangers and stumbling upon our host’s dog, which was also sporting yellow pet-underwear, they did as everyone else.
Now in fresh yellow underwear, everyone rushed back to the table to drink their glass of champagne, eat 12 grapes, make 12 wishes (one for each grape) and embrace everyone around them – all to be accomplished in 60 seconds.
The holiday excitement had just begun.
On the street an elderly woman ran around the block, an old empty suitcase behind her. Young couples embraced under the park’s trees. A man in his fifties counted his money inside his car. Teenagers burned old tyres and set off firecrackers, children searched for their parents. The Peruvian President (well, a stuffed dummy to symbolize Mr Old Year) was paraded around the neighbourhood before being set on fire.
And, in the midst of this madness, my friends greeted visitors who kept arriving by the dozen.
The celebration lasted until the early hours of the New Year.
Peruvians take this crazy tradition very seriously. When the clock strikes midnight, you have to be out of your old underwear and inside your new yellow pair. To be lucky, the underpants must always be brand new. If you get them as a present, it is supposed to bring you extra luck. And what you do exactly at midnight, I was told as a child, offers a snapshot representation of what you will do in the New Year. So if you want to travel in the New Year, you take your suitcase around the block. If you want wealth, you count your money. If you want to keep your lover, you better have him or her nearby at midnight. And if you want to overcome the bad things that happened in the previous year, you burn Mr Old Year.
For our upcoming trip to Peru, I told my 78-year-old Canadian friend Berthe to pack brand new yellow underwear.
‘I don’t have yellow underwear,’ she declared.
I told her not to worry, that we could get her a new pair in Lima.
‘But I don’t need yellow underwear!’ she fired back.
As I tried to convey to her the significance of the brand-new-yellow-underwear-for-good-luck-on-New-Year custom, she eyed me with suspicion and told me in her native French that I was ‘vachement folle’ (really crazy). I thought about explaining why Peruvians count money and carry suitcases around at midnight, but after reflection decided to keep that little part of the New Year’s celebration to myself.