New Year Festivals
NEW YEAR FESTIVALS
NEW YEAR FESTIVALS . The concept of year, which is found in all higher cultures (as solar year or lunar year or some combination of the two), is not known in all archaic cultures. Some cultures reckon only in periods of approximately six months; this is especially the case in tropical lands where seedtime and harvest come twice in the course of a single year. Even when the year is regarded as a basic division of time, the calculation is often based not (or not exclusively) on the sun and the moon but on the visibility of certain constellations; in tropical and subtropical areas, it is based with special frequency on the heliacal early rising of the Pleiades. The beginning of the year, or the "New Year," is often not a precise and fixed date that is astronomically determined (e.g., by equinoxes or solstices). Rather, it is a period that is determined by the annual vegetation cycle or, more generally, by climatic processes (passage from the dark period of the year to the bright, from the cold to the warm, from the stormy to the calm, from the dry to the rainy). Such periods are often accompanied by festivities, and when the interval between such festivities is approximately as long as a solar year, one is justified in speaking of New Year festivals.
Even where the year is known as a unit of time, it does not necessarily follow that the years are counted and that a chronology exists. "It is true indeed of most primitive peoples … that they are well acquainted with … the concrete phenomenon of the year … as a single period of the seasonal variation, but do not reckon in years in this sense. That is to say, the year is by them empirically given but not limited in the abstract: above all it is not a calendrical and numerical quantity" (Nilsson, 1920, p. 90). Thus in archaic cultures and in early high cultures the importance of New Year festivals is not, or is only in small measure, found in the fact that they are measures of time; the principal function of such ceremonies is to ensure, during a critical transitional period, a renewal of life and the life force. In fact in many instances they even assume the form of a symbolic new creation out of chaos.
Whereas New Year ceremonies vary widely from culture to culture, their meaning is essentially concerned with the phenomenon of transition or passage in its two aspects of "elimination" and "inauguration." What is old, exhausted, weakened, inferior, and harmful is to be eliminated, and what is new, fresh, powerful, good, and healthy is to be introduced and ensured. The first aspect finds expression in ceremonies of dissociation, purification, destruction, and so on. These involve washing, fasting, putting off or destroying old clothing, and quenching fires as well as the expulsion of sicknesses and evil powers (demons) through cries, noisemaking, and blows or through the dispatch of an animal or human being on which are loaded the sins of the previous period of time. The ceremonies may also reintroduce chaos through the dissolution of the social order and the suspension of taboos in force at other times and, in some cases, through the election of a temporary pseudo-king. The conflict between the old and the new time is also symbolized by ceremonial battles and by masquerades (in which the demons to be expelled or the creative ancestors of the primordial time may be represented). In addition there is often a temporary suspension of the division between the world of the living and the world of the dead, with a return of the latter to the houses of the living, where they receive sacrifices and food but from which they are ceremoniously dismissed at the end of the festal period.
The second and positive aspect of the passage from old to new is seen in the donning of new clothes, the lighting of a new fire, and the drawing of freshwater as well as in green branches and other symbols of life, in initiations (reception of young people into the cult community), and in orgiastic festive joy that leads to many kinds of excesses: immoderate eating, drinking, and dancing and, often, sexual orgies (these are to be regarded not only as a reintroduction of chaotic conditions but also as an attempt at the forcible augmentation of the life forces). In agrarian cultures there is often a suspension of taboos at the new harvest and the renewal of food reserves. Only rarely, however, are all these elements found conjoined. In any case, a purely phenomenological approach is inadequate and can even be misleading, because it presumes a fictitious universality. A phenomenological consideration of the traits common to New Year festivals must therefore be supplemented by a detailed examination of the form they have taken in the context of particular cultures. This kind of detailed analysis is extensively provided in works by Vittorio Lanternari (1959, 1976).
In most archaic cultures New Year ceremonies are a dramatic representation of occurrences in the primordial time and, more specifically, of the fondazione degli alimenti or the establishment of the manner of obtaining food, which is recorded in myths about the primordial time. To this symbolic re-creation of the established order is added the concern with the expulsion of the unfavorable period of the year and the inauguration of the favorable period.
Hunting and food-gathering cultures
In most hunting and food-gathering cultures New Year ceremonies take place at a time when food is beginning to be scarce. In Australia this is usually toward the end of the dry period (in many parts of Australia the rainy season begins in October, in other parts in December). The San of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa also conduct their New Year ceremonies at the beginning of the rainy season. Among the Selkʾnam (in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago) and the Andaman Islanders, the ceremonies focus chiefly on banishing the bad (cold or stormy) season of the year; elsewhere the emphasis is on inaugurating the good season with its abundant food (as in the ceremonies of the Australian Aborigines, which aim at an increase in certain species of animals). In the arctic climate of the Inuit (Eskimo) hunting (which consists chiefly of the slaying of marine mammals) is impossible during the winter months; these months are instead a time of intense ritual activity that reaches its climax at the winter solstice. Among the Inuit, religious exaltation finds expression in shamanistic activity and especially, as with hunters and food collectors generally, in dancing. These dances represent in dramatic form the events of the primordial time, that is, the deeds of the ancestors and culture heroes.
Unrestrained eating and drinking are not found at these feasts of hunters and gatherers, and sexual orgies are rare. Such orgies do occur among some Western Inuit tribes, but their New Year festivals clearly show the influence of the fishing cultures of the American Indians of the Northwest Coast. Among Australian Aborigines, sexual orgies are connected with initiations, but these are not part of New Year festivals. The belief in collective return of the dead from the sea is usually not found except among some few Inuit tribes, and in this case the form of the belief is connected with their manner of life as hunters of marine mammals, a connection found also in the belief systems of the fishing cultures. Finally, among hunting and food-gathering cultures, the sacrifice of firstlings is not part of New Year celebrations (as it is among nomadic herdsmen and cultivators). Where sacrifices of firstlings are customary, they are offered immediately after a successful hunt.
The term fishing cultures is here used in a broad sense to include those peoples who hunt chiefly marine mammals or even other sea animals, such as tortoises. Because the peoples in question are sedentary inhabitants of islands and coasts, they are also often agriculturalists, where climatic conditions allow. But where the character of experience is determined primarily by the group's relation to the sea, this relation manifests itself in the New Year festival. Thus even the time for the New Year festival is determined by the condition of the sea; the festival may occur at the solemn inauguration of the fishing period (when, for example, certain fish or other marine animals appear in great numbers) or at the close of this period (when fishing becomes impossible for a long time because of storms or excessive cold). Among the American Indians of the Northwest Coast (the Kwakiutl, Tsimshian, and others), the ceremonies take place when the salmon enter the rivers in great schools and the salmon catch begins; during the ceremonies certain parts of the catch are thrown back into the water (the same is done among some Inuit tribes of the Northwest Coast). Similar ceremonies are conducted by the coastal Koriak and coastal Chukchi, Siberian peoples who live chiefly by hunting whales and seals, but these ceremonies are conducted at the end of the hunting season.
An important element in the New Year festivals of fishing cultures is the belief in a collective return of the dead, especially of those drowned at sea; this idea is particularly important among peoples of the Northern Hemisphere, and it has left its mark on European folklore. Where sacrifices of the animals caught are offered (these are to be regarded in part as sacrifices of firstlings), they are addressed either to the sea as such or to the dead; in the former case a belief in a return of the animals to life is also of some importance at times.
Nomadic herding cultures
The special characteristics of New Year festivals among cattle-breeding nomads are most clearly seen in northern Eurasia, where the distinction between the cold and warm seasons of the year is pronounced. These peoples, whether breeders of reindeer (Saami, Samoyeds, Tunguz, Koriak, Chukchi) or breeders of horses, sheep, and cattle (Altai Tatars, Abakan Tatars, Yakuts, Mongols), celebrate their New Year festivals in the spring, when the vegetation revives, the animals produce their young, and milk and milk products are abundant. At this time sacrifices of firstlings are offered to the higher powers and especially to the supreme heavenly being in gratitude for the increase of the flocks; these offerings consist both of young animals and of bloodless victims (milk and milk products, such as koumiss, an alcoholic drink made of mare's milk); often too the rite of bloodless dedication of animals is practiced. Festive joy finds expression also in abundant meals and in sporting competitions that represent in symbolic form the victory of summer over winter.
In tropical regions the shift of seasons often occurs in a less striking way, and animals often produce young throughout the entire year. For this reason New Year festivals of the type found in northern Eurasia are rarely found among the herding peoples of Africa, except for certain festivals that occur before the beginning of the rainy season. But in subtropical regions, for example, in Southwest Asia, springtime festivals are found, or at least traces of them can be seen, as among the Arabs and in the Israelite Pesaḥ.
It can be said of all nomadic herding cultures that they do not have a belief in the regular collective return of the dead. Sexual orgies too are almost unknown among them.
Primitive cultivation cultures
According to Lanternari (1976), three types of agrarian cultures are to be distinguished: (1) primitive cultivators (tuber cultivators) without social stratification; (2) advanced cultivators with improved methods of tilling and a social stratification; and (3) grain growers, who already represent a transition to the high cultures. A vivid example of the New Year festivals of primitive tuber cultivators is the Milamala festival of the Trobriand Islanders of Melanesia, which Bronislaw Malinowski, in particular, described in great detail. It has its foundation in mythology and is celebrated for an entire lunar month, that is, in August–September, when the harvest of yams, which are the principal food, has been completed and there is thus an abundance of food. During the entire month work in the produce gardens is strictly forbidden; the time is spent in singing, dancing, eating copious meals, and engaging in sexual orgies. During this period the spirits of the dead enter the village and are offered food; at the end of the festive period they are ceremonially expelled.
Festivals of a similar character are widespread among the tribal peoples of Melanesia (Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, New Britain, New Ireland, New Guinea, New Caledonia), where the cultivation of tuberous plants everywhere provides the staple foods. Typical elements in these festivals are reverence for the earth (as agent of fruitfulness and dwelling place of the dead); the collective return of the dead, to whom sacrifices of firstfruits from the new harvests are offered; and the orgy in its various forms (copious meals, dances, sexual abandon). The collective return of the spirits of the dead and the sacrifice of firstfruits from the harvest are also documented outside Melanesia (in Africa, Indonesia, and elsewhere). In some parts of Melanesia cultic societies (of a more or less secret character) play a role in the New Year festivals. Other Melanesian tribes have special ceremonies not found in the Milamala festival, including, for example, initiatory celebrations, the appearance of masked dancers in dramatic presentations, and the slaying of large numbers of pigs. Moreover the Festival of Pigs frequently takes a form in which the enhancement of social prestige plays a special role. Whereas this particular festival is celebrated not annually but at longer intervals, there are nonetheless many indications that it was originally connected with the New Year festivals.
Sexual orgies are regarded as a means of intensifying the life force and promoting the fertility of plant life. Such celebrations are also found as part of the New Year celebrations among more highly developed agrarian cultures.
Advanced cultivation cultures
The culture of the Polynesians may be taken as a typical example of advanced cultivation cultures. Polynesian culture is based chiefly on the cultivation of the breadfruit tree; on some islands this is supplemented by taro or sweet potatoes, for which irrigation is used. Because of the climate, there is no sharp contrast between the seasons of the years and between periods of abundance and dearth. Surplus agricultural production has made possible the development of a hierarchic social order, often with a sacral or even divinized king at its apex. The upper classes are not directly involved in agricultural production but exercise other functions, particularly ritual ones. For this reason the purpose of the New Year ceremonies (which do not occur at the same time on all the islands) is less to ensure the food needed for life and much more to validate the social order: the first fruits of the harvest are not offered to the returning dead as a whole but to the kings and the chiefs (who then often make a further distribution of them) as well as to the royal ancestors and the gods; the latter are often of an agrarian-solar type. Ceremonial battles take place and at times a symbolic deposition or slaying of the king, followed by his reenthronement. Unrestrained dancing and sexual orgies are often part of the fertility cult, as they are among primitive cultivators. The New Year festival shows comparable forms with a similar content in various cultures that combine cultivation of the soil and cattle breeding and that also have a hierarchic social structure, such as among southeastern Bantu peoples, in West Africa, and in Madagascar.
The New Year festival in grain-growing cultures has much in common with the festival found in other agrarian cultures; there are, however, distinguishing features that can be seen among rice farmers (ancient Japan, ancient China) and maize growers (North America and Mesoamerica). The contrast between the cold, dark, and unfruitful and the warm, bright, and fertile periods of the year is marked (this opposition accounts, for example, for the great importance of new fire as a symbol of light in the New Year ceremonies—something also found among nonagrarian peoples of the north, such as the Inuit and northern Asiatics). In grain-growing cultures the sun, the influence of which on the growth of cereals is directly visible, is of paramount importance; not so among tuber cultivators, who ascribe fertility directly to the earth and the dead. (The great importance of the solar complex among the Polynesians can be traced back to Asian elements in their culture; a further significant similarity with East Asia is the importance of the sacral ruler for the general prosperity.) A dominant theme in the myths of grain growers is the marriage of heaven (the sun) and earth. In some grain-growing cultures the New Year festivals are connected with the solstices, in others with the revival of the vegetation in the spring or with the conclusion of the harvest.
Cultures of the Ancient Middle East and of the Mediterranean World
The influence of the mythical ideas and corresponding rituals of the grain-growing cultures reaches into the agrarian and urban cultures of the ancient Middle East and of the Mediterranean region. In these cultures, however, the ceremonies are enriched with numerous new elements. First, the vegetative cycle and its accompanying round of agricultural labors determine the demarcations of the year; however, there is also a more refined astronomical observation. Thus the beginning of the year is determined partly by climate and vegetation (therefore the year begins either in the spring or in the autumn), partly by the equinoxes, and more rarely by the solstices (as in Phoenicia and Syria). In Ugarit there seems to have been a cultic year that began in the autumn and a "civic" year that began in the spring. In Mesopotamia the Akitu festival among the Sumerians was originally an autumn festival marking the resumption of fieldwork after the summer drought. The Babylonian New Year festival (Sumerian, Zagmuk; Akkadian, Zagmukku), also called Akitu, which was celebrated in the spring at the beginning of the month Nisan, represented the fusion of two originally distinct festivals, one in the spring, the other in the fall. The Iranian New Year festival (Nowrūz), celebrated at the time of the spring equinox, also replaced an older custom of starting the year in the fall. In pre-Islamic Arabia the year began in the fall; in only a few northern frontier areas was there a shift to a year beginning in the spring. It is not known when the year began in the ancient cultures of southern Arabia; in modern times the year begins sometimes in the spring, sometimes in the fall.
As for the ceremonies of the New Year festivals in the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures, members of the "cult history" school (known also as the "myth and ritual" school) delineated a "pattern" for the urban New Year festival that includes the following elements: "The dramatic representation of the death and resurrection of the god; the recitation or symbolic representation of the myth of the creation; the ritual combat, in which the triumph of the god over his enemies was depicted; the sacred marriage; the triumphal procession, in which the king played the part of the god, followed by a train of lesser gods or visiting deities" (A. M. Johnson in Hooke, 1958, p. 226). Judah B. Segal brings together what is known about New Year ceremonies in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Babylonia, among the Hittites, and in Syria, Phoenicia, and Arabia to derive components of a general pattern:
The New Year is fixed by the calendar. In all communities we find a ritual going-forth from the city to the open country. In all are rites of purification, which include fasting and the wearing of new clothes, processions, the exchange of gifts, sacrifices, and feasting. In some communities there is a solemn recital of a myth of Creation, in several the sacred marriage is enacted. Most include the temporal removal of conventional social restrictions. The New Year appears to be an appropriate time for the dedication of a temple. (Segal, 1963, pp. 125–126)
The Israelite New Year festival is not derived from this urban type, which supposedly split into a spring festival and an autumn festival. One must suppose rather that the Israelite festivals contained independent elements derived from the nomadic period and that in part they were remodeled Canaanite festivals (through which Mesopotamian influences were indirectly at work) that were taken over after the settlement. The Canaanite influence is especially apparent in the New Year festival in the autumn; nomadic traditions, on the other hand, are reflected in the spring festival (Pesaḥ) at the beginning of the year. The very details that give the Pesaḥ ritual its specific character are the ones that do not fit into the general pattern that has been presented by Segal. In Arabia the pre-Islamic (nomadic) spring festival lives on in changed form in the ʿumrah of Mecca, whereas the pre-Islamic (agrarian) autumn festival can be seen in the ḥājj.
Spring and autumn festivals that mark the beginning of the year (or at least critical turning points during the year) are also to be regarded, in the folklore of North Africa and the southern European countries, as survivals of a common ancient Mediterranean agrarian culture. Among the common features are sexual rituals as a means of promoting fertility (although these have for the most part been reduced to symbolic actions or purely verbal manifestations), masks as representations of the returning dead, and the role played by a temporary sacral "agrarian king."
The Christian feast of Easter is connected with the Israelite Pesaḥ and, as the feast of the resurrection of Christ, has its own specific salvation-historical content. In addition, however, it contains (partly in the official rites of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Churches, partly in popular customs) numerous details that derive from archaic cultures and the cultures of the ancient Middle East; these details symbolize a transition and a new beginning and to this extent make it possible to regard Easter as the real Christian New Year festival.
The New Year is usually celebrated at the beginning of the secular year on January 1, though other New Year celebrations are also practiced. These include secular celebrations, such as the beginning of the school or university year, and religious celebrations, including the Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist New Year celebrations.
Secularized Western Christian celebrations
Many regional and local traditions mark the secular New Year. In Germany firecrackers at midnight (between December 31 and January 1) indicate the end of the old and the beginning of the new year. According to Germanic traditions, loud noise helps hinder bad spirits from entering the new year. In Italy men used to wear red pieces of cloth with their underwear because it was believed that this would bring good luck. In addition special dishes, such as carp and sweetbreads in Germany, are served on New Year's Day. Some Germans smelt lead on New Year's Eve in order to predict the future on the basis of the forms the lead takes after it has warmed up. Chimney sweeps are believed to bring good luck on New Year's Day. Good wishes are often exchanged, orally or in letters and postcards. A specific German New Year's wish is that of a good Rutsch, which is a slight deformation of the Yiddish-Hebrew word Roʾsh, an abbreviation of Roʾsh ha-Shanah.
Roʾsh ha-Shanah is the Hebrew name for the Jewish New Year in autumn. It is celebrated on the first of the month of Tishri, the seventh month of the Jewish calendar year. The name was unknown in biblical times, where, with reference to Leviticus 23:24–25, the sacred day was called the Day of Remembrance (Yom ha-Zikkaron) or Day of Sounding the Shofar (Yom Teruah). It marks the beginning of a ten-day period of spiritual self-examination and repentance that culminates with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This period of celebration is clearly not mirthful compared with the New Year celebrations that are held at the beginning of the secular year. Rather, Roʾsh ha-Shanah carries strong religious implications of remembering the sins of the past year. The holiday finds its expression when people walk, according to an old tradition, to a source of flowing water, such as a creek or a river, on the afternoon of the first day and empty their pockets into the water, symbolically casting off their sins.
Many Jews, in particular American Jews, use the New Year as a time to plan a better life, making "resolutions" for the year to come. It is in this spirit of renewal that white clothes are recommended and white skullcaps are suggested as symbols of purity. Intensive house cleaning is on the agenda, debts are paid back, and reconciliation is sought in cases of discord. The sounding of the shofar, the ram's horn, is the most characteristic sign marking the New Year. "During the course of the Rosh Hashana service, a total of 100 notes are sounded. Ancient tradition has handed down three distinct shofar notes: a long drawn-out sound (tekiah ), a broken, plaintive sound (shevarim ), a series of sharp, staccato sounds (teruah )" (Donin, 1972, p. 245). If the New Year falls on a Sabbath, the shofar is not blown. No work is permitted on Roʾsh ha-Shanah. Much of the day is spent in the synagogue. Eating apples dipped in honey is popular on this day, as is sending postcards to wish a happy New Year to relatives and friends.
In all Christian churches and denominations the secular New Year is the designated date for New Year observances, be it the reformed Gregorian calendar date of January 1 or, as in some Orthodox areas, the original Julian date of mid-January. Thus the beginning of the religious year (in Western Christianity the first Sunday of Advent, four weeks before Christmas) has no importance as a Christian New Year. However, many Western Christian churches welcome the secular New Year by ringing the church bells at midnight on New Year's Eve.
In the Muslim world there are two types of New Year: the lunar Islamic New Year on the first day of Muḥarram, the first month of the lunar calendar, and the solar Nowrūz in March. The lunar calendar is the official Muslim calendar and reminds Muslims of the foundation of the ummah in Medina after the prophet Muḥammad's migration from Mecca to Medina in 622 ce. Because the lunar year is eleven days shorter than the solar year, the lunar Islamic New Year moves backward over the seasons and thus can occur in any season. Remembrance of the prophet Muḥammad's migration is central, and this story is recounted in private ceremonies, publicly in mosques, and in the modern Muslim world on radio and television. Some Muslims have also started sending postcards to wish friends and relatives a happy New Year.
There is no official religious service associated with the Muslim lunar New Year. In some areas, in particular those under Persian cultural influence, a fixed date, namely the spring equinox, marks the New Year, which is recognized with a celebration that dates back more than three thousand years. This holiday is celebrated by all Iranians regardless of religious affiliation, including both Zoroastrians and Muslims. People generally clean their houses and themselves before the New Year starts. New clothes mark the event. Rural Iranians construct and light piles of thorn and brushwood, and people jump over the fire on the last Tuesday of the year. It is believed that this act will purify the jumper and help rid him or her of illnesses and misfortunes. Every day of this thirteen-day celebration is marked by a special action, including visiting relatives and friends and exchanging gifts and good wishes. New Year's Day is set aside for the preparation of seven items (haft sīn ), the names of which all begin with the letter sīn: sīb (apple), sīr (garlic), sumāḳ (sumac), sindjīd (jujube), samanū (a kind of sweetmeat), sirka (vinegar), and sabzī (greens).
In Hindu communities the beginning of the New Year is celebrated by the Dīvālī (Diwali) Festival of Lights in November. It is celebrated all over India, although different regions celebrate Dīvālī in different ways. What is common is the lighting of many small earthenware oil lamps, which set homes and gardens aglow with twinkling lights. The origin of the feast is the return of Rāma to his northern kingdom after having been sent away by his mother Bhārat to hinder him from becoming king. Rāma finally returns successfully, thus symbolizing the victory of good over evil. People exchange good wishes and give gifts during the Dīvālī festival; they also buy and wear new clothes, hold family meetings, serve special holiday meals, and decorate doorways and homes with small red and white footprints to symbolize Rāma's happy return. Fireworks and firecrackers are also an important part of the celebration.
In Buddhist countries several dates are used to mark the New Year. In Theravāda countries (Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Laos) the New Year is celebrated three days from the first full moon day in April. In Mahāyāna countries the first full moon day in January is considered the New Year. The date of the Buddhist New Year also depends on the country of origin or ethnic background of the people who are celebrating it. For example, Chinese, Koreans, and Vietnamese celebrate the New Year in late January or early February, according to the lunar calendar, whereas Tibetans usually do so about one month later. Water plays an important role in Buddhist New Year celebrations, where it is used for purification of temples, homes, and individuals.
The Chinese New Year starts with the new moon on the first day of the new secular year and ends on the full moon fifteen days later. The fifteenth day is called the Lantern Festival, which is celebrated at night with lantern displays and children carrying lanterns in parades. New Year's Eve and New Year's Day are celebrated as a family affair. Heaven and earth are honored, as well as the gods of the household and the family ancestors. Rules govern what to eat and what to do on each of the fifteen days. Many families use special New Year's recipes for the holiday foods. It is common to abstain from eating meat on the first day of the new year because this will ensure a long and happy life. People also visit temples to pray for good fortune and health.
The Japanese New Year (Oshogatsu) lasts for a week, starting on December 28 and running through January 6. Cleaning and cooking are important activities in preparation for the Oshogatsu. Shortly before midnight on New Year's Eve, toshi-koshi soba, a type of noodle soup, is served. People then listen to 108 midnight gongs rung at local temples and broadcast throughout Japan. The 108 gongs symbolize each of the 108 desires, listed in Buddhist texts, which hinder people from reaching salvation. On New Year's Day specific traditional meals are served, good wishes cards are delivered, and people gather with their families and visit temples.
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"New Year Festivals." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 17, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/new-year-festivals
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