The first day of the year is like a 24-hour hangover, no alcohol consumption necessary. The marathon holiday season—from Thanksgiving on through the December holidays and New Year’s Eve—is finally over. New Year’s Day is the day after the party, when we have to come down from all the highs (and lows and everything in between) of the previous weeks.
My family never had any New Year’s Day traditions growing up, and I haven’t imparted any to my kids either. Most of the time, Jan. 1 is just a quiet day at home together—and perhaps it could be said that’s a tradition in itself.
But the day and I do have some great history and some childhood memories I treasure.
Is there anything more fun for a kid than playing football in the snow? While the answer may not be the same for everyone, for my friends and me, growing up on Long Island, there was nothing we’d rather do. I was very lucky growing up in a lot of ways. Just on my block, there were something like a dozen other boys my age, and in those years, my main group
And one particularly perfect afternoon, the New Year’s Day when I was around 11 or 12, we had a snow football marathon for the ages. On this most memorable New Year’s Day, there must have been about a foot of snow on the ground from a New Year’s Eve blizzard. But on the first day of the year, the sun was shining, the wind was calm, and the temperature was something reasonable, maybe upper 30s.
My lawn didn’t have any trees on it—I seem to recall that my dad had cut them all down because he didn’t want to deal with raking leaves. I can’t quibble much with that line of thinking, especially because his leaf aversion made our yard perfect for sports. So when the boys came over to my house, I grabbed my battered and impossibly ugly lime green Nerf football with what looked like a chunk bitten out of it, and out into the snow we went.
This might have been one of the last times all six of us played football together. The group grew apart as we hit middle school. But that day we had an absolute blast.
Snow football was a totally different game than what we were used to. We were heavily padded with layers of clothes, and the ground was nice and soft with the snow. Also, we almost moved in slow motion, as we had to yank a foot out of the snow for each step. It all combined into a game where we could tackle each other as hard as we wanted, but we knew we weren’t going to get hurt. It was like playing on pillows. It was awesome.
We played regular football for a while, but it got hard once our fingers got too cold. So we settled into something a little simpler: a game we called Goal Line Stand. Taking turns, one guy held the ball, standing about 3-4 yards away from the other guys, who lined up right across from one another, at the aforementioned goal line. The guy with the ball would yell out the ever popular “Hut, hut, hike!” and run right at the other guys, who would try to stop him from getting across. Simple, with lots of falling down in the snow.
After a good while playing Goal Line Stand, we ended our outdoor extravaganza in the only appropriate way one can end such a day. We made snow angels!
We all trooped inside, exhausted and cold, but also exhilarated. My mom made us hot chocolate and put out the chocolate chip cookies she and I had made that morning. We sat at the table, munching and sipping until we couldn’t fit another morsel into our stomachs. That’s about all I recall, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we all just put our heads down on the table and had a good long nap.
But that’s not my only New Year’s Day football memory. The very first football game I ever saw was on Jan. 1, 1978. I know the date because I know what game it was: the NFC Championship Game, and the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Minnesota Vikings 23-6. I’m not sure how much I grokked football before that; my dad liked boxing, but no other sports, and at six, I was too young to have played the game with friends. But somehow I stumbled on to that contest while flipping channels—that’s a thing people did before streaming—and found myself transfixed by big blue stars on the Cowboys’ silver helmets.
That New Year’s Day planted the seed for a lifetime of rooting for the Cowboys. But the seed might not have grown if not for what happened two weeks later. We’d had family over on that particular Sunday, my grandparents and some others.
At one point, Poppy Moishe, a larger than life character who could light up a room, turned to me and asked, “Have you ever watched football?” I said, “Yeah, I watched one game.”
Then he whispered, conspiratorially, “Should we go in the other room and watch the Super Bowl?” Looking back, it’s pretty funny that he asked me, as it was surely just something he definitely wanted to do himself.
We left the others, went into the den, and turned on the game. Lo and behold, what did I see but those very same silver helmets with the stars on them! I wasn’t aware that the winner of the game I watched on New Year’s Day advanced to the Super Bowl—or even what the Super Bowl was. I just knew I was excited to see those Cowboys again.
Sure enough, they won that game, too, beating the Denver Broncos, 27-10. I was hooked for life, and I watch my Cowboys every time they play—trying, and only sometimes succeeding, to keep the yelling to a minimum. (In case you were wondering, yes, Dez caught that ball.)
What really sticks with me from Super Bowl Sunday 1978 was sitting next to my grandfather on the couch, as he patiently explained the nuances of the game. The rules are a bit complicated. He went over everything from holding penalties to halfback option passes—this game had both—always making sure I understood, always answering my questions, and ensuring I would be able to watch and appreciate a game on my own next time.
And that’s a one-of-a-kind day I’ll always remember. What defines New Year’s Day, past or present, for you?
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)