Humans are a suspicious bunch. And that usually means we’ve got all kinds of traditions to help bring in the good luck and ward off the bad. In the South, that usually revolves around something we all love dearly: food.
Most Southern New Year’s Eve traditions generally begin and end with the kitchen. And no matter how you slice it, tradition says you need three main components when it comes to food.
The tradition of eating black-eyed peas reigns in the South, but it actually dates back to the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana. However, rumor has it the Southern-based tradition started during the Civil War. Apparently, Union General Sherman and his troops raided the Confederate food supplies but left the black-eyed peas and salted pork, thinking they were animal foods. The Confederate soldiers considered the two items lucky since they still had food left to eat. Another tradition still says African Americans ate them to celebrate their freedom when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect Jan. 1, 1863. Another explanation still: the peas looked like coins, and signified wealth (spoiler alert: all three foods signify wealth).
How you should cook the peas is up for debate. In fact, some traditions actually involve cooking the black-eyed peas with a dime or coin. It’s probably not the most sanitary thing, but it hammers the point home. And they person who receives the coin is then “extra lucky.” Provided they don’t actually swallow it, of course.
Some people fry or roast the peas. Others say the only way is to eat them as plain as possible to show “humility.” And even more weird, some people go so far as to eat 365 peas, no more, no less. And if you miscount? You’ll have that many unlucky days in the year. Talk about a lot of pressure!
Collard greens are among the healthiest Southern foods (until you cook them in ham hock, bacon and butter, of course). Besides being a healthy food, which obviously brings good luck in the form of good health, collard greens are said to bring in the cash for the new year. You know, green and green and such. But there’s also a pretty good reason Southerners eat greens around New Years: they’re still in season! Cabbage and collard greens are both late crops, so it just makes sense that’s the fresh green we eat on New Year’s.
Cornbread and Ham
Rounding out the New Year’s trifecta, a nice steaming pan (or skillet) of cornbread represents golden opportunities and pocket money (wealth) in the New Year. Also, it’s just darn tasty.
Now, no meal in the South is complete without a meat. Besides loving pork all the time, Southerners eat ham and other pork products on New Year’s Day because the animal has long been considered lucky. Along with the possible Civil War story, people consider pigs to be an animal of “progress.”
For some, the specific cut of pork may turn visitors off. Hog jowls — the meaty, tough pig cheek — often make their way to New Year’s Day tables in the South. Hog jowls are cured, kind of like bacon. And that’s pretty much the best explanation for why they became so popular in the rural South. They kept for a long time and one pig often fed an entire family for months.
But there are several other traditions shared in the South and beyond that don’t necessarily have to do with food, either. Sure, planting a big ol’ kiss on somebody is always nice. It’s supposed to bring lots of affection in the New Year. Along with a few other traditions.
Do you know why we set off fireworks? If you answered, “Because blowing stuff up is fun,” you’re mostly right. But the tradition actually has much greater superstitions. Fireworks and firecrackers supposedly scare off all the old spirits from year’s past who may be trying to hang around too long.
In some homes, it’s even customary to open the door at midnight when you make a bunch of noise to let all the “bad” out.
Clean Home and a Full Cupboard
A clean home represents a fresh start for the new year. In the South, some people even get out and put a fresh coat of paint on the home if it’s warm enough. But there’s a catch: make sure you get everything clean before Jan. 1 or the day after. Some traditions state nothing should leave the house on the first day of the New Year — not even trash — to signify not losing anything important to you.
And, to make matters even more complicated, you should make sure your cupboard is full. A bare cupboard could mean a similarly bare year, and nobody wants that!
The First Visitor
This tradition has its roots in Scotland and England, but many Southerners share the same sentiment. The story goes that the first person who enters your home after midnight on New Year’s Eve is a symbol of what’s to come. Ideally, that person should be tall, dark-haired and good-looking. You should reward them accordingly for entering your home and bringing good luck for the new year.