From breaking plates in Denmark to burning scarecrows in Ecuador, there are many thought-provoking New Year’s traditions, including quite a few that focus on lucky food. How did these foods get associated with the New Year? Some traditions began in the last few centuries while others may date back to ancient times.
Here’s the background on a tasty few.
In Spain and some Spanish-speaking countries, it is said that eating one grape per each stroke of New Year’s Eve clock at midnight can improve your luck all year long. The tradition of eating 12 lucky grapes, or las doces uvas de la suerte, is at least a century old. Unlike other culinary traditions inspired by ancient practices and rituals, this custom may date back to a bumper grape crop in 1895. There were so many grapes that year it is said that the King of Span distributed them for the holiday.
The Czech Republic, Italy and Brazil are three countries where lentils are associated with the New Year. In the Czech Republic it is traditional to eat lentils on New Year’s Day. In Italy lentils are served on New Year’s Eve just after midnight, often with greens, sausage or roast pork. In Brazil the first meal of the year is also likely lentils, served with rice or in lentil soup. The tradition may date back to the ancient Rome, when lentils were a very valuable crop and jars of lentils were exchanged on the first day of the year. Their coin-like shape represents wealth and good fortune.
The scales of fish are also said to resemble coins and that may be one reason the Danes, Swedes and Norwegians think it is lucky to eat boiled cod on New Year’s Day. While boiled cod might sound a little bland, Kogt Torsk or boiled cod is served with boiled potatoes, mustard sauce, hard-boiled eggs and pickles.
Wishing for prosperity seems to be a theme in the foods chosen for new year festivities and Greece’s customs are no exception. Since the days of ancient Greece, the pomegranate has symbolized eternal life and abundance in mythology. Today in Greece, it is customary on New Year’s Eve to smash a pomegranate on the floor before a home’s front door. When the pomegranate splits, the seeds, which symbolize prosperity, are revealed.
Cornbread is a traditional New Year’s food in the U.S., where it is served in Southern states with collard greens and black-eyed peas. “Peas for pennies, greens for dollars, and cornbread for the color gold,” goes a saying in the South. But the U.S. is not the only place that serves up corn bead on the first day: In Portugal, eating a meal of cornbread with a green broth, known as Caldo Verde, is a traditional way to start the year.
Seollal, the Korean New Year, occurs on January 28. For that celebration, the most commonly eaten dish is rice cake soup or tteokguk. As well as rice cakes, the soup may be topped with eggs, roasted seaweed, green onions and shredded brisket. One theory about the choice of this food for a New Year’s dish is that the rice cakes or tteok signify purity and a fresh start. The dish has traditionally been used in religious rites since ancient times, although the first written mention was in an 18th century book. Eating tteokguk on the lunar holiday is so widespread you can ask a Korean person how old they are by asking how many bowls of this soup they’ve eaten — in Korea, everyone is a year older on New Year’s Day.
Algeria celebrates New Year’s Day on January 1 along with much of the world, but a few weeks later there is also the Yannayar festival, which has been observed for more than 1,000 years. This Amazigh (Berber) celebration takes place between January 12 and 15 and marks the beginning of a new farming year. The traditional meal on that day will include chicken and a couscous dish which includes seven varieties of vegetables.
In Japan, which also observes a lunar New Year, the traditional food is toshi koshi soba. The noodles are eaten while temple bells ring on the eve of the new year and their name means “from one year to another.” While New Year’s Day in Japan may be a time for celebrating with family and friends, the eve is usually spent quietly, sipping on soup, slurping up soba noodles, which symbolize good fortune, and sampling toppings of spring onions, tempura flakes and fish cakes.
The Pennsylvania Dutch, who originally came from Germany, brought this custom when they immigrated to the U.S. The tradition may largely be a matter of timing, as pigs were traditionally butchered just before the Christmas holiday and cabbage harvested in the fall took that long to pickle. But pigs were also thought to bring good luck as pigs root forward, unlike some other animals, and this was thought to symbolize progress.