New Year’s Eve was one of the holidays I looked forward to when I living in the Philippines. Because fireworks are not illegal there, it was a boisterous affair. It was a feat to light explosive fireworks without blowing your hand off. But the main reason I loved the holiday was because it usually was the biggest family get-together we had. Now that I live in the US, I have very little opportunity to socialize and New Year’s Day is usually spent watching the countdown in Times Square on the TV. It’s even more subdued now that my kids are not living with us. And we will probably be comforting one of our dogs who is petrified of loud sounds. Nevertheless, I continue with our family custom of having a laden table to greet the new year. In the Philippines, it’s tradition to have food on the table at midnight. I remember one such night when I saved the family feast from our dog when he jumped on the table when the fireworks started. Luckily, he didn’t step on anything.
Another reason I love New Year’s is throughout the world, it is greeted with anticipation and excitement, regardless of what calendar they are following. And many countries share the same traditions and superstitions, especially when it comes to the food to be served on New Year’s Day. Traditions vary from culture to culture but the similarities are striking. One thing I noticed as I do research for my blog posts is that many countries are tied together by the food we eat. I feel that if only we can all come to a communal table, we will have peace in the world. The food enjoyed during this holiday is symbolic of our shared hopes and dreams. What is common in the foods associated with New Year’s Day? They are all believed to bring luck and prosperity in coming year.
Pork – In the Philippines, big celebrations always include a whole roasted pig we call lechon. It’s slow-roasted over an open fire until done and the skin becomes shiny and crispy. I’m sure that the custom came about because the Philippines was a Spanish colony for 300 years. Roast suckling pig is served in Cuba, Spain, Portugal, Hungary and Austria. But other pork dishes can also be enjoyed. The Swedes eat pigs’ feet and Germans have roast pork and sausages. So, we must go back further to find out why the oink became lucky. Hundreds of years ago, in Europe, wild boars that were caught by hunters were killed on the first day of the year. It made sense that its meat was used to celebrate. According to many sources, pork also became the meat of choice because pigs were associated with plumpness and abundance. Pigs also symbolize progress because the when the animals root the ground, it pushes forward. In the United States, pork was consumed for its high fat content which signifies wealth and prosperity. Today’s pork is bred to be leaner but it is ham is still the standard holiday meat in most American homes. Some countries like Austria consider the pig so lucky that they also served pig-shaped treats like cookies or marzipan shaped like little porkers.
Fish – Maybe because I’m Catholic that I associate fish with Lent and fasting but in many countries, fish is a popular feast food. There are three reasons why fish are considered lucky: their scales resemble coins, travelling in schools is a sign of prosperity, and swimming forward symbolizes progress. Mark Kulansky, author of Cod: a Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, says that since the Middle Ages, fish has been equivalent to having turkey on Thanksgiving. Cod could be preserved and that allowed its transportation to far flung places. In Italy, baccalà, or dried salt cod, is eaten throughout the holiday season, while the Danes eat boiled cod. In Scandinavia, Poland, and Germany, herring is consumed at midnight to ensure a year of bounty. Their silvery color also resembles coins, an omen for future fortune. The Germans also eat carp and some place some of the shiny fish scales in their wallets for good luck. The Swedes has a spread of a variety of fish for their smorgasbord. Fish for New Year’s is not limited to Europe but on the other side of the world, in China, fish is considered lucky because the word for fish sounds like the word for abundance, making it a go-to good luck food. Having grown up with many Chinese friends, I know that fish, especially large ones are centerpieces for celebrations and there are certain superstitions that surround its consumption. The Chinese believe that the head and tail should remain intact to ensure a good year from beginning to end. And it is also bad luck to flip the fish over. Instead, the spine is removed to access the other side. In Japan, herring roe is eaten to ensure fertility, shrimp for long life, and dried sardines for a good harvest. Sardines were once used to fertilize rice fields.
Cooked Greens – Greens symbolize paper money therefore it’s believed the more greens one eats, the more money one would have in the coming year. Collards is the green of choice in the U.S. but other countries eat other greens such as cabbage, kale, and chard. Germans like sauerkraut and Danes stew kale sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. Hmm, that’s different and sounds delicious. Here in the South, we eat cooked greens year-round but it is de rigueur on New Year’s. Here is a recipe for Southern-Style Collard Greens. Also, peculiar to the South is pot likker, the juice left in pot after the collards. It is traditionally valued as a delicacy and aphrodisiac. It can be sopped up or made into a warm, comforting soup. There is also a custom of save a few uncooked greens for tacking to the ceiling (for luck) or hanging over the door (for warding off evil spirits).
Legumes – Beans, peas, and lentils are symbols of money because their round shape resembles coins and when soaked and cooked, they swell, which signify growing wealth. In Italy, just after midnight, it’s customary to eat cotechino con lenticchie or sausages and green lentils. Germans also pair legumes with pork usually lentil or split pea soup with sausage. In Brazil, the first meal of the New Year is usually lentil soup or lentils and rice. In the Southern U.S., black-eyed peas are the legume used. This hearkens back to the Civil War. The Union troops had pillaged the land and the Southerners subsisted on black-eyed peas and greens, which was animal fodder. Luckily, these foods are very nutritious. So, they became symbols of gratitude and hope for the future. In Carolina Low-country, black-eyed peas are cooked with rice and is called Hoppin’ John. They are flavored with bacon, fatback, or ham hock and cooked slowly with onion and salt. Some believe that eating one pea for each day of the year will bring luck every day. The leftovers are called Skippin’ Jenny and eating them increases your chances of prosperity because of your frugality. Beans are also considered lucky in Japan, where kuro-mame is part of a group of symbolic dishes (osechi-ryori) eaten during the first three days of the new year.
Grains – like rice, quinoa, and barley are signs of abundance. Corn, turned into cornbread represents gold. Some people add extra corn kernels, which are like gold nuggets. In Sweden and Norway, a whole almond is hidden in rice pudding and whoever gets the nut is supposed to have great fortune in the new year.
Noodles – In Asia, it’s customary to long noodles signify long life. The noodles are never broken or shortened, particularly in Japan, the noodle called toshikoshi soba is eaten as a send-off for the old year. This noodle is quite long and the goal is to swallow at least one of them without chewing or breaking. Achieving the slurping feat is supposed to bring good luck and longevity.
Round fruits – Grapes are popular in Spain and Portugal and their former colonies. New Year’s revelers eat 12 grapes for each stroke of the clock, representing each month, and swallow all the grapes before the last stroke of midnight. If one grape is sour or bitter, that might indicate the same forecast for the month it was eaten for. In Peru, however, they eat a 13th grape for good measure. In Greece, pomegranates are smashed on the floor in front of the door. The seeds symbolize prosperity and good fortune. The more seeds, the more luck. They are also considered lucky in Turkey for many reasons. The pomegranate’s red color represents the heart, denoting life and fertility; they symbolize health because of their medicinal properties; and their abundant seeds represent prosperity. Figs are considered a symbol of fertility.
Cakes – Cakes and other baked goods are commonly served around the world, especially round and ring-shaped cakes. Italians make chiacchiere (angel wings) as the traditional sweet for New Year. They are made from honey, covered by fried pasta dough and dusted with powdered sugar. Italians believe this food helps them avoid bad lucks and bring good fortune. In Poland and Hungary, they eat donuts. Similarly, people in Holland make ollie bollen – puffy, donut-like pastries filled with apples, raisins, and currants. Mexico celebrates with rosca de reyes, similar to the Spanish roscon de reyes and Portuguese bolo rei which I featured in a previous post (Continental Christmas Breads). It’s a ring-shaped yeast cake baked with one or more trinkets inside and decorated with candied fruit. Many countries make a similar cake with a coin baked inside and the person who gets the slice with the coin is considered very lucky. Round and ring-shaped food signifies coming full circle – the old year has been completed. In Greece, they have a special round cake called vasilopita, which is cut at midnight or after the New Year’s Day meal. The first piece is offered to St. Basil and the rest distributed to guests in order of age.
In Scotland, New Year’s is called Hogmanay and they have a tradition called “first footing.” The first person to enter the home after the new year determines what kind of year the residents will have. It’s consider especially auspicious if that person is tall, dark and handsome! The “first footer” often brings gifts like coal or baked goods such as shortbread, oat cakes or a fruit cake called black bun to make sure the household always has food. The Dutch make nieuwjaarskoeken, or New Year’s cakes. It’s made by pressing a cookie-like dough into carved wooden boards decorated with flora and fauna and was quite popular in the 19th century, especially in the New York area. These thin crisp sugar cookies were traditionally flavored with caraway, lemon and sometimes cider.