New Year traditions through the ages

Tuesday, January 2, 2018
New Year’s Day is not complete without the southern Hoppin’ John meal of black-eye peas and hog jowl, served with greens and fried potatoes for good luck and prosperity in the coming year.
File photo

New Year’s Day and the dropping of the big ball are right around the corner. A lot of people will be singing in the New Year with family and friends, eating their own traditional foods and, most importantly, jotting down those great resolutions of what they “intend” to accomplish in 2018 that didn’t get done in 2017.

People throughout the world have celebrated the coming of a new year for centuries. The tradition began approximately 4,000 years ago, when the ancient Babylonians celebrated the new moon after an equinox, which occurred sometime in March. It was the beginning of spring, so it was not only a renewing through planting, but also the time when a new king was crowned or the current king’s reign was renewed.

Later, in 46 B.C., the Roman emperor, Julius Caesar, introduced the Julian calendar, which more closely resembled the Gregorian calendar that is still used by most countries today. Caesar also instituted January 1 as the first day of the year and placed it as the first calendar month, named in honor of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings. The Romans celebrated the day by offering sacrifices to the god, exchanging gifts with one another, decorating their houses, and having wild, loud parties. Throughout history, not a whole lot has changed.

Historically, New Year’s Day is the oldest holiday still observed, but over the years, it became celebrated for different reasons by various cultures in society that were mainly religious. However, in the 20th century, New Year’s Day grew into a celebration that was separated from religious ties and most commonly associated with nationality, new beginnings, relationships, and the tradition of certain ceremonies to obtain good luck throughout the coming year.

Some of the most common traditions throughout the U.S. include the song, the kiss, the ball-dropping ceremony and the noisemakers.

The singing of “Auld Lang Syne,” played at the stroke of midnight at all New Year’s Eve parties, began in 1929. Although the song was written in 1788 by Robert Burns, it became popular when it was first played at midnight by Guy Lombardo at the Roosevelt Hotel, in New York, to roll in the new year.

The traditional midnight kiss is another significant part of New Year’s Eve. Some believe that failing to kiss someone results in a year of loneliness; therefore, the making the need to share that special moment with someone more significant.

The ball-dropping countdown tradition began in New York City’s Times Square, in 1907, when New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs asked his chief electrician to make something that would create a spectacle at midnight. Except for a brief interruption during World War II, in 1942 and 1943, the ball has dropped every year since. The current ball is a 12-feet-wide geodesic sphere that contains 2,688 Waterford crystal triangles and weighs 11,875 pounds.

Noisemakers used to ring in the New Year date back to ancient times, when it was believed that noise would keep evil spirits away. Since most people are unaware of those ancient traditions, whistles, horns, and shaking noisemakers are all part of today’s New Year celebration, and the only evil spirits are the ones they are drinking.

Traditional party activities are not the only part of a New Year’s celebration, across the nation and throughout the world. Different types of food also play a big part and are believed to bring luck to those who eat them.

In the southern U.S., black-eyed peas and pork, or hog jowl, and greens are important. In fact, collards are the green of choice. Traditionally, it’s believed that the more greens one eats, the larger his or her fortune will be the next year. Cooked greens, including cabbage, collards, kale and chard, are eaten on New Year’s Day in different countries, for one reason. They are representative of folded money. The Danish eat stewed kale, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, while the Germans have sauerkraut.

Legumes that include beans, peas, and lentils are also symbolic of money since, when cooked, they swell to the size of coins. Similarly, they are eaten with the idea that one’s income will improve over the next year. In the south, the traditional dish, Hoppin’ John, is eaten, dating back to the Civil War when, in the town of Vicksburg, Miss., residents ran out of food while under siege, and had to exist largely on black-eyed peas. They were considered lucky after that.

Hoppin’ John consists of black-eyed peas and rice, with chopped onion and sliced bacon, seasoned with a bit of salt. Some people substitute ham hock or fatback for conventional bacon, and others add green peppers, or vinegar and spices. According to southern tradition, on January 2, leftover Hoppin’ John becomes Skippin’ Jenny, and is said to show frugality, bringing even further hope for a better chance at prosperity throughout the coming year. Another common southern tradition is for each person at the meal to leave three peas on the plate. This act is to ensure that the year will be filled with luck, fortune and romance.

The custom of eating pork is based on the idea that pigs symbolize progress, and their rich fat content signifies wealth and prosperity. This custom is practiced in countries throughout the world on New Year’s Day, including Cuba, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Austria, Sweden and Germany. In the northern U.S., the Pennsylvania Dutch eat pork for good luck, because it is believed that pigs traditionally forage forward for their food, and don’t look back. German immigrants who settled in northern Ohio brought the traditional dish of sauerkraut and pork to the U.S., as a good luck feast.

The final tradition practiced on New Year’s Day is the most often-made, and more often-broken—the New Year’s resolution. The top 10 resolutions are to lose weight, get organized, spend less and save more, enjoy life to the fullest, stay fit and healthy, learn something exciting, quit smoking, help others, fall in love and, last on the list, spend more time with family. It is said that 45 percent of all Americans will make some type of New Year’s resolution, but that only eight percent of them will actually keep it and achieve their goal. However, no matter how many resolutions are made or broken, even one that can be practiced throughout the year and completed, is a change that may positively affect not just one person, but many others.

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