Caesar designated January, named after Janus, the Roman god of gates and
doorways, as the first month of the year.
Fittingly, Janus has two faces, one that looks back and another that
looks forward. We pay subtle
homage to him whenever we compile lists of the "Ten Best …. of the Past
Year" and then make New Year's resolutions. In almost every culture, the
beginning of a new year calls for reflection on the past and hope for a better
year to come. It also calls for special lucky foods.
the South, of course, that food is black-eyed peas, which by some stretch of
the imagination look something like little coins. They may be cooked with ham or hog jowls and served with
collards and cornbread. Many people will tell you that eating black-eyed peas
on New Year's Day brings good luck for the rest of the year. In some places, the explanation is that
if you "eat poor" on the first day of the year, you will "eat
rich" for the rest of the year.
Cabbage is also popular, because its green leaves resemble money.
Further north, that cabbage reappears as Pennsylvania Dutch pork and
sauerkraut. Since we're
transplanted northerners, we eat both, just to be sure.
countries, too, have their traditional New Year's Eve favorites. In Holland, they eat doughnuts whose
circular shape represents luck coming full circle. In Denmark, the favorite dish
is boiled cod, while in Germany and Poland pickled herring are served at
midnight on New Year's Eve. In
Spain and other Hispanic communities, everyone is expected to eat twelve grapes
as the clock strikes twelve to assure a good harvest in the coming year. (That
sounds easier than it is! If you
must try it, be sure to use seedless grapes.) In Italy they serve "cotechino con lenticchie" -- pork sausage, whose fat represents
abundance, cooked with lentils, which represent coins. And in Greece, a coin is
baked into a New Year's cake; whoever gets the piece with the coin will have
good luck all year.
cultures celebrate their New Year on other dates, but the customs are
surprisingly similar. Persian
families prepare by throwing out old clothes and extinguishing all fires. Then they dress in new clothes and
rekindle the fires as a sign that they have forgotten the past and are starting
over. The Persian New Year's table
always has at least seven dishes. They include sprouts to represent rebirth, a
sweet pudding to show the richness of life, apples for health, olives for love,
garlic for medicine, vinegar for the patience and experience that comes with
age, and sumac berries the color of sunrise to represent the triumph of Good
Chinese New Year and Vietnamese Tet both feature an elaborate menu of dumplings
(wealth), lotus seeds (many sons), and whole fish and chickens (yes, feet and
all), because it is bad luck to cut anything on the first day of the year. The Japanese celebrate for three days,
serving only foods that can be prepared ahead, such as the traditional rice
cakes that bring good health and shrimp cooked in saki. These dinners also feature long soba
noodles, which represent long life.
You must not cut the noodles, however, and tofu is forbidden for the New
Year celebration because it is white, the color of death.
use of firecrackers to scare away evil spirits at midnight on New Year's Eve
has spread from Asia to the United States. Canadians have Polar Bear Clubs, whose members celebrate New
Year's morning by taking a swim in the coldest water they can find as a sign
that winter cannot defeat them. (Probably a good hang-ever cure!) In many
places, everyone watches to see who will be the first person to enter the house
in the new year. It is best to
welcome someone rich and famous, but if you are a young marriageable woman, you
hope for a tall, dark-haired man.
If, as some believe, whatever happens on the first day of the year is a
sign of things to come, you'll want to choose your meals and activities with
However you celebrate, I hope this is just the beginning of a wonderful year for you and those you love.