Holiday History: New Year’s Day traditions

A traditional New Year's Day meal with black eyed peas, ham and cornbread
A traditional New Year's Day meal with black eyed peas, ham and cornbread
J.D. Spears via Shutterstock

New Year’s Day gives us a lot of opportunities to discover the fun side of history—and have fun doing it.

Food, for example, is part of many New Year’s traditions. Food is one of the best ways to gain insight into a culture. We study cultures to determine how they operated in the past and what we can learn from them. Most everyone equates food and fun on some level.

Eating black eyed peas on New Year’s is a long-standing Southern tradition. Black eyed peas, which are actually a type of bean, originated in West Africa, although they are now eaten around the world. Enslaved people almost certainly brought black eyed peas with them when they were taken and brought to the Americas.

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The most likely suggestion is that eating black eyed peas on New Year’s Day originated with African Americans, with the idea that they bring good luck. Other accounts point to the Civil War, when Union troops in the South would requisition foodstuffs, or confiscate them outright, but were said to leave black eyed peas because the troops considered them unfit for consumption. Those grateful to have them considered themselves fortunate.

That leads to two other points in the study of history. The first one is this: Sometimes there is no definitive answer, or it has not yet been rediscovered. We may know with certainty that the D-Day invasion occurred on June 6, 1944, but no one is sure who originated eating black eyed peas on New Year’s Day.

Greens, especially collard greens, are another New Year’s favorite. One rationale is that the greens are the color of cash. Now, “greenbacks” didn’t appear as cash until the 1860s, and our current currency notes didn’t come along until about a century ago. Do you think that makes sense, that greens are tied to prosperity in a New Year because of their color? Or is there another reason?

Money is suggested as the reason for other first day of the year favorites. Cornbread is golden. Lentils, a New Year’s choice in Italian cooking, are said to resemble ancient Roman coins.

Ham is offered as a good way to start the year because of the traits of the pigs from which it comes. Pigs get their food by rooting forward, in the way we should be looking forward, in contrast to chickens, for example, that scratch backward looking for food.

There may be another practical reason ham, or pork in general, is prepared on New Year’s Day. Germans and other central Europeans brought the tradition with them. It may be this simple. Pigs are slaughtered late in the year and their meat would then be available at this time. In the same way, cabbage can become available late in the year and considered an omen of good luck for the year.

What experience do you have with these traditional foods? What other foods have your family eaten to celebrate a New Year? Please leave your comments below.

The second point in the study of history—as illustrated by the black eyed peas tradition—is this: Small things that we would consider good or positive can come from much larger, tragic things. The ghastly Middle Passage bringing enslaved people from Africa is the opposite of anything good or positive. This is not about finding some silver lining. It is about recognizing that there are connections we would not anticipate.

History teaches us that there will be difficulties every year, along with tragedies—tragedies that sometimes endure.

Let us resolve to do what we can to make lives better in 2022.

May your first day of the year be filled with fun, food and the people you love.

May you also have a prosperous, healthy, and yes, Happy New Year.

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