By Brian M. Rafferty
Did you ever wonder what the modern person in
Queens has to do with ancient Babylonians? You
may be surprised to learn that we share in a custom
that goes back more than 4,000 years – the
New Year’s Eve celebration.
Though the calendar did not officially recognize
Jan. 1 as New Year’s Day until the age
of Julius Caesar (hence our Julian calendar),
the Babylonians were the first culture known
to get down on the last night of the year, though
it was more about the changing of the seasons
than anything. Many of our traditions still
include the debauchery of a pagan celebration,
though considerably toned down from the days
of their 11-day celebration that involved a
heightened level of mood-altering drink and
a reduced level of inhibition.
Come to think of it, we’re probably not
all that different.
The modern New Year’s celebration is festive,
loud and usually involves a big glittery ball,
standing out in the cold, a countdown and cheers
of joy followed by some random smooching.
But the celebrations would be nowhere without
the varied culinary customs that myriad cultures
bring to the party. Some are traditions based
on faith, some on heritage, others on superstition.
Take the American South, for example. Black-eyed
peas, collard greens, cornbread and stewed tomatoes
rule the roost come Jan. 1. The thought is that
on the first day of the year you eat the food
of a pauper so that the rest of the year you’re
sure to eat like a king. Also, the dishes have
taken on additional symbolism – peas for
pennies, greens for dollars and cornbread for
Other cultures believe that the New Year is
the restart of a cycle, and symbolize it by
eating ring-shaped foods; the Dutch, for instance,
The central European tradition of hunting a
boar on the first of the year has carried over
to a preponderance of ham and pork products
found on the tables of German, Swiss and Swedes
come Jan. 1. The concept is that a pig roots
forward, indicating progress. The opposite is
thought of chickens and turkeys, which scratch
backward, and serve as symbols of the past.
The Greeks celebrate New Year’s and St.
Basil’s Day at the same time, and make
lemon-flavored cakes (vasilopita), one of which
has a coin baked inside. The person gets the
coin is considered lucky.
In Brazil, lentils are a symbol of prosperity,
so lentil soup or lentils with rice is prepared
for the first meal of the New Year. The Japanese
observe their New Year’s tradition of
eating a noodle called toshikoshi soba, which
means “sending out the old year.”
This buckwheat noodle is quite long, and those
who can swallow at least one of them without
chewing or breaking it are supposed to enjoy
good luck and a long life.
In Portugal and Spain, as the clock strikes
midnight and the new year begins, people eat
12 grapes or raisins to bring them luck for
all 12 months of the coming year. The same holds
true for other Central and South American countries.
Herring and other fish find their way into traditions.
Some Germans keep fish scales in their wallets
to ensure good financial luck. Other traditions
involve lentils and other grains that swell
when cooked, to symbolize prosperity and growth
throughout the new year.
And then there is the most modern tradition
of popping open a bottle of champagne –
the most expensive you can afford – to
show that you really know how to celebrate and
will enjoy quality and luxury throughout the
Some information provided by chowhound.com