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Ushering in the New Year with Special Foods

New York, New York. Blowing horns on Bleeker Street on New Year's Day (1943)

New York, New York. Blowing horns on Bleeker Street on New Year’s Day (1943)

January 1 begins the new year of the Gregorian calendar. Many of us who celebrate this day have traditions for bringing in the New Year such as banging pots and pans, blowing horns, kissing the person next to you, and making resolutions.  We also have food traditions and special meals that we prepare and serve on New Year ’s Eve or Day to ensure health, luck, and prosperity.

Here are a few I have discovered:

In the American South, there is a tradition of eating black-eyed peas (Hoppin’ John) and greens, such as collards, on New Year’s Day. This tradition is considered to bring good luck and prosperity: the peas symbolize coins and the greens symbolize paper money.  Often, there is rice in the dish, which swells up with water symbolizing an increase of riches.

Those of Spanish and Portuguese descent eat 12 grapes, raisins, or pomegranate seeds at midnight, one at each stroke of the clock.

The Japanese have a custom of eating toshikoshi soba (buckwheat noodles) representing longevity and wealth.

Greek and Eastern European families bake vasilopita- sweet bread shaped like a wreath and baked with a coin (good luck) inside. The circle shape symbolizes a rounded and complete year.

The Dutch prepare oliebollen, doughnuts to be eaten at the stroke of midnight.

Those of Scottish descent celebrate Hogmanay or Old Year’s Night. Customs vary, but many will be eating dundee cake and black buns and drinking Hogmanay punch (apple cider and Scotch whiskey).

French-Canadians prepare a tourtiere or pork pie.

Italians make a dish of lentils and cotechino (sausage) to symbolize wealth and money for the New Year.

Pennsylvania Dutch serve sauerkraut (wealth) and pork (a pig roots forward, thus symbolizing moving into the future).

People from Germany, Austria and other northern European countries present pink marzipan pigs for good luck. This tradition may be related to the German expression for I’ve been lucky or “ich habe Schwein gehabt,” which is literally translated as “I have had pig.”

In Switzerland, whipped cream is eaten, letting a small portion spill on the floor where it remains all year.

Last, but not least, I discovered a couple other New Year’s traditions that began in early America:

17th century Dutch immigrants from the Hudson River instituted the “opening of the house” on New Year’s Day, which was also adopted by the colonial English. Women would stay at home entertaining and serving food & drink, while the men made “social calls” to mend and tend to relationships.

Crowd waiting in line outside of White House for New Year reception

Crowd waiting in line outside of White House for New Year reception

Following in the New Year’s “open house” tradition, George Washington issued Presidential New Year’s Eve levees (reception) – one could visit with the President without an invitation.  Folks would line up outside the White House  for the opportunity of the New Year’s Day “open house.” This tradition ended with FDR in the 1940’s.

If you interested in food traditions and customs, as I am,  see our LC Science Tracer Bullet on Food History

There are many more New Year’s food traditions that I didn’t have space to mention, but feel free to send us yours!

Happy New Year Currier & Ives, c1876

Happy New Year Currier & Ives, c1876


Gaster, Theodor H.  New Year: its history, customs, and superstitions. New York, Abelard-Schuman, c1955.

Gay, Kathlyn and Martin K. Gay. Encyclopedia of North American eating & drinking: traditions, customs, and rituals. Santa Barbara, ABC-CLIO, c1996.

Hooker, Richard J. Food and drink in America: a history. Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill Company, c1981.

Oxford companion to American food and drink. Edited by Andrew F. Smith. Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press, c2007.

Schrambling, Regina.  Good-luck foods: a New Year’s tradtion. Historic preservation, Dec. 1984, v. 36: 54-57.


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