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PHRAGMENTS FROM PHYLLIS: Toward a prosperous new year

Phyllis Britt

Phyllis Britt

The year 2021 is now a couple of weeks old, and I’m trying to decide where I go from here.

I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions this year. After all, what’s the point? As with the previous year, I want to lose some weight, but who’s going to know (but me, of course)? I really don’t see anyone. I don’t go anywhere. And even when I do, half the people I encounter don’t recognize me with a mask on. I would like to resolve to declutter my house, but again, who’s going to know? The only people who are currently seeing the inside of my house already know what I’m like and don’t expect to be impressed.

Despite all that, I did enter 2021 with certain traditions I wasn’t willing to forego.

I’m always intrigued with how different those traditions can be, depending on where you grew up.

I grew up in Virginia, but with parents who spent their youths in Eastern North Carolina. As a result, our proscribed entry into a new year usually included pork, collard greens, black-eyed peas and cornbread. My friend Susan grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Her New Year’s dinner requirement includes pork cooked in sauerkraut. If you grew up in South Carolina, Hoppin’ John may be a Jan. 1 staple.

As the tradition goes, you eat all these things for the hope of prosperity in the new year. The cornbread represents gold. The collards represent greenbacks. The black-eyed peas are for coinage.

The pork – and I had never read this until this year – is eaten because when pigs root for food, they do so in a forward motion. Supposedly fish is eaten in some parts of the world for the same reason – they’re moving forward when they take on food. In contrast, I recently read that eating chicken on New Year’s Day does not bode well. The argument is that chicken scratch and peck while moving backward. I guess the thought is that you can’t be prosperous in the new year if you’re moving backward instead of forward. And you’re not supposed to eat beef either; however, I couldn’t find what makes that bad luck.

But what do other folks do?

Sauerkraut along with the pork is supposedly a way to wish each other as many riches as there are shreds of cabbage in the sauerkraut. This is apparently of German origin, which explains why it’s part of the Pennsylvania tradition.

In Greece the pomegranate is a must-have. It is tradition to throw the whole pomegranate across the floor, an act that releases the little kernels of fruit. Or, as one website suggested, “You can choose to just eat them, if you’re looking to avoid the mess.”

Fish apparently symbolizes abundance for many places in the world. In Asia people celebrate by eating from a whole fish – I gather flounder fillets aren’t good enough. At the same time, folks in some parts of Europe choose carp, herring and cod.

Really long noodles are eaten for longevity in some parts of the world – particularly if you can manage to eat them without breaking them.

Also in Asian countries, oranges and honey on New Year’s Day are thought to bring good fortune and money.

In Spain, at the stroke of midnight people eat a grape for each stroke of the clock. This may have been started by the grape industry there in a year when the grape crop was particularly abundant, but it caught on, and in their version of the ball drop in Times Square, they partake of the 12 grapes.

Tamales are a staple for the Mexican new year (and most any other time), and they are often paired with menudo, soup made with tripe and hominy. I must confess this does not sound appetizing to me.

A tradition I’d be OK with is in the Netherlands. There they eat oliebollen on New Year’s Day. These are dumplings that are a little like doughnuts, often with currants or raisins, fried and dusted with powdered sugar.

In Austria they take the pork tradition to a whole new level. They drink red wine punch, eat suckling pig for dinner and decorate with little pigs made of marzipan. (I hope they get to eat the marzipan after.)

And a surprise to me is that the King Cake, which I associate with the start of Lent, is found all over the world. It’s eaten on New Year’s or, in some cultures, on Christmas or Epiphany. (Remember, traditionally a gold coin or the infant Christ figure is baked in the cake, and the finder is supposed to have prosperity in the coming year.)

All this leads me to a tradition in The Star when Sam Woodring was owner/editor/publisher. Despite his roots in Pennsylvania, Sam each year would print “Song for the Southern New Year” on the front page of the paper. Here is the poem:

"Hog jowl, rice and black-eyed peas

Foods of superstition, these.

Rash is he who does not pay

Homage here on New Year's Day.

Black-eyed peas, hog jowl and rice,

Preferable to lucky dice.

Eat these things to begin the year,

End it like a millionaire.

Riches from rice, joy from jowl,

Peace from peas to lull your soul.

Heed the custom that decrees

Hog jowl, rice and black-eyed peas."

— Harriet Gray Blackwell

The poet was born in 1919, so this tradition obviously predates her and continues in much of South Carolina. In fact, this year my Greenville daughter, Liz, decided to try her hand at Hoppin’ John (which includes rice and black-eyed peas) on New Year’s Day. It was met with mixed reviews. Eight-year-old Pearce took one look at the traditional fare and declared, “I am too cute to die this way!”

And so begins 2021. I wish you all health and happiness in the new year – and I pray for a conclusion to this pandemic.