Take out, then take in:
Bad luck will begin.
Take in, then take out:
Good luck comes about.
Everything you do on this day has magical implications for the coming year. So don’t throw anything out (even the trash), or lend money or pay bills. If you must carry something out, be sure to bring something else in first, preferably a coin you concealed outside last night!
Since whatever we do on this day will be repeated throughout the year, I like to make New Year’s Day an ideal day, and do a little of all the things I most want to enjoy in the coming year.
New Year’s, as we now celebrate it, comes from the Romans, who moved the New Year from Spring Equinox to January in 153 BCE and celebrated with six days of carousing and rejoicing, ending just as the Twelve Days of Christmas do, on January 6. They got drunk, wore disguises, and kept their tables laden with food all night long to ensure plenty in the coming year (and perhaps to appease the Fates). Boniface, visiting from England in 742 C.E., complained about how the Kalends of January were celebrated in Rome with “dancing in the streets, heathenish cries, sacrilegious songs, tables laden with food and women wearing amulets and offering them for sale.” To somewhat dampen the enthusiasm, the Roman Catholic church declared this the day of the Circumcision.
The ancient Romans also gave each other small gifts (called strenae) on this day, symbolic of good luck for the new year, like coins with the faces of the God Janus on one side and a ship on the other (for He was considered the patron of ships and trade). The modern Roman ritual is a plunge in the icy Tiber River.
In England, gloves and pins were the traditional New Years gifts up until the 19th century. In France, children give their parents handmade gifts with a wish of “Bonne Année!”
Food eaten on New Years Day always has significance, as it also affects the quality of the coming year. In ancient times, the Romans gave friends a glass jar full of dates and dried figs in honey, along with a bay leaf branch so the coming year would be sweet and full of good fortune.
Throughout Japan, preparing and serving special New Year’s foods is an important ritual. The sacred meal is shared with the kami [spirits] as well as family members. Rice is one of the most important foods served. It is specially prepared and shared with the ancestors, and the Gods, like Toshigami, the Year God, who each family hopes will bring good fortune for the coming year.
One of the most famous magical foods to be eaten on New Year’s comes from the American South. Hoppin’ John is an old favorite dish that was a staple of slaves in the antebellum Carolinas, where African bean stews (also found in the Caribbean) met the local American rice industry and came deliciously together. Possibly the earliest appearance of the dish by the name Hopping John was in an 1847 cookbook called The Carolina Housewife. No one knows for sure how the name originated, but one reasonable suggestion is that it’s a corruption of the French-Caribbean words pois à pigeon, or pigeon pea, a relative of the black-eyed pea, and which would be pronounced “pwah-ah-pee-john.”
Every Southern cook (and cookbook) I know has a recipe for Hoppin’ John, but there are three basic ingredients that never vary (unless you are a vegetarian). The black-eyed peas (sometimes field peas or crowder peas may be substituted) are the most important symbolic food. In many cultures, beans and other legumes are thought to bring good luck because of their resemblance to coins (which means the promise of wealth). The rice is for fertility (which is why we throw rice at newlyweds with such gusto). And of course, most old Southern recipes require that fatback, ham bone, or bacon is used to flavor the stew, since pigs are lucky and cooking up a pig in a pot is a sign of prosperity. Usually, just to ensure plenty of extra folding cash, collard or mustard greens are also served on the side.
While nowadays, you can find Hoppin’ John recipes that are all chic and gussied-up, with tomatoes, artichoke hearts, black beans, or made with a fancy rice pilaf, I think that plain and simple is the real spirit of it. It is just a mix of cooked rice, black-eyed peas, and some kind of seasoning (pork, if you eat it). As a vegetarian, I skip the ham hocks. But I have found that original Uncle Ben’s Wild Rice® (read the ingredients carefully – some kinds have chicken flavoring), simmered with black-eyed peas, served with sides of greens and cornbread is a lovely, satisfying meal that has brought plenty of luck to our table!