I thought since it was the end of the year that I’d deviate from lessons in caregiving and share some fun information about cultural traditions regarding the celebration of the New Year. I’ve always loved the study of different cultures and have found the similarities and differences between the various cultures amazing. (Some day I’ll have to tell you about the differences in birthing and mothering practices….priceless!)
Almost every country and culture in the world celebrates the New Year, although it is not celebrated at the same time of year in every culture. They also seem to have certain foods that they partake of on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day in order to bring them good luck in the new year. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
In the southern parts of the United States, black-eyed-peas are eaten in order to bring prosperity throughout the new year, and are often combined with collard greens (and often ham hocks or hog jowls). The black-eyed-peas represent “eating coins” and thus gaining wealth. The collard greens are representative of money (as are kale and cabbage). At many southern New Year’s celebrations, you will find a dish caled Hoppin’ John which is made from black-eyed-peas, ham hock, rice and other ingredients. Sometimes a shiny dime is placed in the dish and whoever receives it on their plate gets an extra helping of good luck.
In many parts of the United States, ham is served. The hog symbolizes prosperity throughout other parts of the world, as well. Part of this is because as pigs root for food, they are always “rooting forward” symbolizing progress. In Italy, the fatty parts of the hog are served too, symbolizing fattening of the wallets. The pig is also used as a good luck food in Austria but comes in the form of little pink pig cookies.
In Asia, long noodles play a part in the New Year’s celebration as a food that symbolizes long life, but the noodle must not be broken before it is entirely in the consumer’s mouth. For the Chinese, oranges and tangerines are also consumed as foods to ring in their new year. A recent explanation has it that the words “luck” and “wealth” in Chinese sound much like the English words “orange” and “tangerine” respectively. Dumplings are also eaten because they are said to resemble nuggets of gold.
Another green leafy vegetable, cabbage, is said to bring luck and good fortune to the Germans (in the form of sauerkraut) and the Irish because it is green and resembles paper money.
In Italy, lentils are thought to be of good fortune for the new year because of there resemblence to coins or gold nuggets.
Pomegrates are consumed at the new year as a symbol of abundance and fertility in Turkey and other Mediterranean countries.
In north America, Asia AND Europe, fish is often a “good luck” food representing “moving ahead” into the new year because fish swim forward. Eating fish is also associated with abundance because fish swim in schools. Perhaps this is why our family always had poached salmon with dill sauce on New Year’s Day.
Several countries serve round or ring-shaped cakes as part of their New Year’s celebration as they represent having come full circle. In Greece, there is the Vassilopita (often containing a hidden coin); in Italy, they have panetonne; in Mexico, the Rosca de Reyes and in Holland, the donut-like Ollie Bollen.
Long ago, I had a small catering company and was called to deliver a special tray to an Iranian family who was celebrating their New Year (in March, the first day of spring). The tray consisted of gold foil wrapped coins, apple, garlic, a nut candy and colored eggs making up a grouping that consisted of seven edible things that began with the letter “S” (in Persian language). This tray was to be placed on the dinner table or next to an additional non-edible display as a symbol of sweetness, love, prosperity, health, beauty, purity, opulence, patience and actually a few other hopes.
Some traditions arise out of natural circumstances. In Spain, 12 grapes are eaten at midnight, 1 for each strike of the clock or 1 for each month passed symbolizing the coming of a “sweet” year. This tradition is said to have begun around 1909 when there was a surplus of grapes in the Alicante region of Spain.
In some cultures, rice is also a part of the New Year tradition. In the Scandanavian countries, a sweet rice dish is served containing a hidden almond. Whoever received the almond was said to have good luck throughout the coming year. (It’s surprising to me that with all these hidden coins and nuts that no one choked! My mother actually used to wrap coins in waxed paper and hide them in my birthday cakes! )
When I had New Year’s Day parties at my house, we had a fortune cake…..I wrapped little paper fortunes around a fancy toothpick, covered the edge with foil and then stuck them into the cake. Each person chose a fortune with their slice of cake.
If you have the opportunity, ask your aging loved one(s) if there were any “good luck” foods served to them in their childhood during New Year’s celebrations. You might be surprised.
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