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Celebrating the Old and New Year in the Valley of Longevity

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As I wrote in a previous post, the holiday season, which has now come to an end, is filled with rituals -- Thanksgiving parades, holiday parties, family dinners, and finally, New Year's festivities -- special menus for New Year's Eve dinners, black-tie balls, and for the brave and hardy, a journey to Times Square where you huddle with a million other people to watch the big ball drop at the stroke of midnight -- an official American way of marking the New Year.

After a festive series of parties and feasts, we traveled this year from Delaware to Ecuador and, after many airline connections, made a beeline for Vilcabamba, a small, rather remote village in Ecuador's southern Andes where we celebrated the New Year in a very different way. Vilcabamba is a remarkable village nestled in a valley that is surrounded by verdant mountains whose cloud-shrouded peaks mark a climatological and ecological boundary between the Andean highlands and Amazonian rainforest. Situated in what is locally known as the sacred valley and named after the huilco tree that was sacred to the Incas, Vilcabamba is principally known for the longevity of its residents. It is not unusual to see centenarians ambling up steep hills to shop at the weekly market or to walk considerable distances to meet other elders in the picturesque village plaza.

Throughout Ecuador people welcome the New Year by consuming 12 cherries or grapes -- a way to make a good wish for each month of the year. People also buy yellow clothing, especially underwear, to bring prosperity and beauty. Most spectacularly, Ecuadorians construct life-sized paper-mâché effigies of cartoon characters like Bart Simpson or less well know but more personally troublesome characters that speak to family's struggles during the dying year. These effigies are burned on New Year's Eve to cleanse the recent past -- of bad memory and social strife -- to provide a clean slate for the coming year.

Then there are the parties. Families get together and dance all night long. Older family members are expected to remain until after midnight. Younger family members often party until dawn. In Vilcabamba the party takes place in the village plaza. A band plays meringue and salsa, people drink beer and pisco sours, eat and dance -- a good time for old and young alike.

So far my descriptions of these Ecuadorian rituals don't seem to be particularly unique --special foods, parties, the burning of effigies. What strikes my anthropological imagination, though, is how these activities are age-integrated in Ecuador. At the village party, adults danced with children. Teenagers danced with adults. Young adults danced with elders -- all with an ease of interaction. In America, social activity has sadly become more age-segregated. The idea of 60-somethings partying with 20-somethings on New Year's Eve has become rare.

In our society, people of different generations certainly don't ignore one another, but they seem to increasingly live in different universes. You could blame technology. Younger generations seem more at ease with the social use of technology. But that would be simplistic. A more likely explanation for increasing age-segregation in the U.S. and Europe may derive from our more individualistic tendencies. We are encouraged to be competitive and strive for individual success and tenaciously pursue our goals, which means that individual desire often shapes the texture of our lives. We move away from home, lose contact with our kin, and often focus our social time on our friends. Such a process leads to age-segregation in which like-minded people talk about like-minded things.

Witnessing how people of all ages are integrated into Vilcabamba social activities made me realize that age-segregation limits our experience and impoverishes our lives. I regret that as a young man I didn't really want to hear my 90 year-old grandfather talk about his escape from Belarus in 1916 or how he struggled to come to America and begin a family. I could have learned so much from him, but I chose to hang out with my friends instead. In a less age-segregated society, I might I have learned a great deal about our family -- about life. My New Year's wish is that more people might experience the wonders of age-integration so that their lives might be enriched by the knowledge of our elders and the wisdom of our ancestors.

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