With one set of holidays just behind us, we still have a little more celebration left before the deep, dark, quiet winter sets in. Today, I’ll be sharing some of the New Year’s traditions from North America (and to some extent, from around the world). New Year’s has a lot of obvious components: a sense of rebirth, optimism, setting goals for improvement, and even a little romance. Let’s look at some of the big traditions associated with this glittering and festive affair.
1) Fireworks – These are a common component of New Year’s festivals worldwide, including the Chinese New Year which occurs later in the winter. Aside from being a celebratory demonstration of light and wonder, the noise and fire from these explosives may serve to frighten away any lingering demons or bad spirits. And, of course, they help keep everyone awake until the crucial midnight hour. This also ties into other noise-making activities on New Year’s Eve, such as singing, banging cymbals, and other loud demonstrations of the party spirit.
In the Appalachians, this sometimes mixed with the mumming traditions of the Christmas season and became something known as a Shanghai Parade. Gerald Milnes describes the practice in his book, Signs, Cures, & Witchery:
“The shanghai tradition once included music played on violins, flutes, horns, and drums in the Valley [of Greenbriar Co., West Virginia]. There is even a fiddle tune called ‘Shanghai’ that is known in West Virginia and may be connected to the shanghai ritual…people also cross-dress and put on exotic, mostly homemade costumes. Reversal is a theme, and they generally whoop it up in the spirit of old midwinger revelry” (p. 192)
Jack Santino also describes similar uses of noise-makers, including guns, in his All Around the Year: “In Hawaii, the custom involves the traditional beliefs of the native Hawaiians, who say that the fireworks scare off demons. In Ohio, they are used as noisemakers, often instead of a gun, since ‘shooting in the New Year’ is the tradition” (p. 13).
2) Kissing at Midnight – This tradition is related to others more regionally or culturally specific (such as “First Footing,” discussed below), but has become a broader practice among Occidental celebrants of the New Year. The Snopes.com page on New Year’s superstitions has this to say on the subject:
“We kiss those dearest to us at midnight not only to share a moment of celebration with our favorite people, but also to ensure those affections and ties will continue throughout the next twelve months. To fail to smooch our significant others at the stroke of twelve would be to set the stage for a year of coldness.”
The idea of setting the stage for the coming year based on what one does on New Year’s Day ties into a lot of the other superstitions and customs related to this holiday. With kissing, the idea seems to be that if you start the New Year off with someone you love, or at least by kissing someone attractive, you will invite positive romance into your life over the coming year.
3) First Footing – To those of Scottish extraction, this is probably a very familiar practice. The Scottish New Year is called Hogmany, and involves several key rituals, including house-cleaning, preparing traditional meals (see “New Year’s Food” below), and First Footing. Sarah at Forest Grove has written an excellent entry on the Hogmany traditions, and describes First Footing thusly:
“First footing is a divinatory folk tradition where the first person who sets foot in your house in the wee hours of the New Year determines the luck and happenings of the year ahead. A man is preferred over a woman, and a man of dark hair and eye over a man of light hair and blue or green eyes. Redheads are especially unlucky to be the first to set foot across your threshold in some areas of Scotland.”
In some cases this practice requires that the first-footer be not of the household. We received several pieces of lore in our Winter Lore Contest related to the New Year, including a bit about First Footing from listener/reader Akia: “Some of her [grandmother’s} holiday superstitions included: not letting anyone out of the house or enter until an unrelated male came into the house on New Years Day.”
4) New Year’s Food – There are a lot of traditions about just what to eat on New Year’s Day. Some of the most common components of a New Year’s meal are:
- Black-Eyed Peas
- Collard Greens
- Ham or Pork
- Whiskey (or good, strong booze in general)
- Potato Pancakes
Most of the foods associated with the New Year are related to prosperity and wealth in some way. For instance, lentils and potato pancakes are shaped like coins. Black-eyed peas have fertility and abundance going for them. Cabbage and collards look like wads of bills waiting to be spent, etc. Some folks recommend the addition of non-edible components to the meal, such as coins for prosperity. Patrick W. Gainer says, “It will bring good luck if on New year’s Day you cook cabbage and black-eyed peas together and put a dime in them” (p.123). Listener and podcaster Aria Nightengale shared her New Year’s food lore during our recent contest, saying, “[W]e always eat pork and cabbage on new year’s day. According to my Momaw, we eat pork because pigs eat moving forward not backwards, so pork will help you move forward through the new year. I don’t know the specific purpose of the cabbage…but Momaw cooks it with a silver dollar in it for prosperity.”
There’s a distinctly Southern dish called Hoppin’ John made from black-eyed peas, onions, and ham which can usually be found simmering away on most stovetops during the New Year. It’s so important to our traditions that many restaurants also offer some version of it on New Year’s Day. My wife and I have a tradition of going to one specific restaurant every year where we can get good potato pancakes and hoppin’ john to help bring in the New Year with a couple of our friends. It makes for a nice way to spend the day, and ensures that we get our black-eyed pea requirement taken care of.
There are still many more traditions we could discuss (and I hope to!), such as cleaning practices, taboos, whether or not to give gifts, etc. But for now, I hope this has been a nice introduction to the wonderfully lore-rich practices of New Year’s celebration. Here’s wishing you a great day, and a great ending to the year!
All the best, and thanks for reading,