By Jeremy Wortham
Humans are a superstitious bunch. And that usually means we’ve got all kinds of traditions to help bring in good luck and ward off evil spirits.
All over the world, folks celebrate New Years Eve in their own traditional ways. Some stay home waiting for the ball drop in New York City along with the endless other celebrations being shown from all over the world on the television. Some go out and get more involved by spending the night away at local events like parties, bars, and clubs. Others drive to bigger cities to partake in events such as the peach drop in Atlanta.
In the South, bringing in the New Year usually revolves around two things we all love dearly: football and food. Who in the south doesn’t love watching the college football bowl games while smelling the food cooking in the kitchen? Don’t answer that!
Most Southern New Year’s Eve traditions generally begin and end with loved ones in the kitchen at the parents or grandparents house. For as long as I can remember my family has celebrated New Year’s Eve in a very specific way. We eat. And I mean we eat a lot. And we don’t eat just anything, we eat what has become for me, and I’m sure many other southerners, the last feast, similar to a Thanksgiving or Christmas supper.
On New Years Day, my in-laws would cook the southern traditional fare. We’d have black eyed peas, rice, collard greens, cornbread and ham. Cornbread, often served with black-eyed peas and greens, represented gold. If stewed with tomatoes then it would represent health and wealth. Also, some form of pork is to be included: pork roast, ham hocks, hog jowls and so on. Many simply just add fatback in the greens. The pork represents health and wealth and continued prosperity. Some say that the pork also represents progress since pigs and hogs generally are not able to look backward without completely turning around.
According to old Southern stories, southern tradition dates back to the Civil War when Union troops pillaged the land, leaving behind only black-eyed peas and greens as animal fodder. In the North, the black-eyed peas were known as “cowpeas” or “field peas.” Cattle ate cowpeas, and humans ate only English peas. Since the North believed that only cattle ate black-eyed peas, they saw no need to destroy this crop. They had already either taken or eaten all of the cattle.
First planted as food for livestock and later a food staple for slaves in the South, the black-eyed pea fields were ignored as Sherman’s troops destroyed or stole other crops, thereby making the black-eyed pea an important food source for surviving Confederates. As one of the few food sources left to sustain the people and the Southern soldiers, those black-eyed peas came to represent good fortune.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate the tradition of sitting around the dinner table and everyone enjoying the holiday meal, part taking in the family games, followed by a firework show by the kids. Speaking of fireworks...
Fireworks are probably the second biggest part to a New Year’s Eve celebration. Do you know why we set off fireworks though? If you answered, “Because blowing stuff up is fun,” you’re mostly right. But the tradition actually has much greater superstitions. Fireworks have been used in China since ancient times. That might be where the belief stems from that fireworks and firecrackers scare off all the evil spirits from year’s past who may be trying to hang around too long. So don’t forget to get you some fireworks or at least go watch a firework show.
Lastly, out with the old and in with the new. A clean home represents a fresh start for the new year. 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 old Christmas trees -- 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!
Whatever the reason for the tradition, we Southerners stick religiously to it. Especially when it comes to southern cooking because it’s DELICIOUS!