I always knew there would be two things on the table come the stroke of midnight as my family welcomed in the New Year - Herring and Rye Bread. I’d pinch up my nose as my grandfather told me how delicious it was, and my father laughed in the background. I knew full well he didn’t like it either. Seeing the floaty things in the jar of herring is probably what made my stomach turn the most.
But every year I would put a teeny piece of herring on the bread, and as I brought the bread to my mouth to take a bite, I’d get a whiff of the fishy, sour and oddly sweet tradition and decide this wasn’t the year to be brave.
My grandfather passed this tradition down from his father who immigrated to the United States from Germany, where herring is considered good luck and invites bounty and abundance in the New Year.
Food is at the centre of every society's most important moments and entering a New Year is at the top of the list. Food of all sorts contain symbolic meanings and people in places as diverse as Poland to New Orleans welcome in the new year eating foods important in their culture - all generally wishing for the same happiness, success, and longevity.
And while the idea of eating herring on New Year’s Eve is about as appealing as, well - eating herring there’s something special about honouring this century old tradition in my family. As you stock your table for your New Year’s Party, consider adding one of these cultural delights to the spread. This just might be the year I take the herring plunge.
Across a number of cultures beans represent prosperity. Hopping John, a savoury blend of rice and black-eyed peas, served with Collard Greens is a tradition in the American South. The green of the collard greens represents dollar bills and the black eyed peas represent coins in plenty. Some even make sure to eat 365 peas, representing a coin for each day of the year. In Italy, it’s common to eat Sausage and Green Lentils. In Brazil, their first dish often includes lentils, as well. In Japan, they eat Kuromame, black soy beans representing good luck and health.
Fish on the table often represents abundance. Whether it’s because fish produce plenty of eggs during reproduction, or the symbol of fish in a net represents good luck… there’s one thing that’s for sure - seafood is an important part of the New Year’s table in many countries. Germans and Polish have herring and carp, Japanese have prawns, herring roe, and sardines. In China, whole fish are served representing head to tail - or a good year from start to end.
Noodles are also an important symbol in several countries, Japan and China notably. The longer the noodle the better - but whatever you do, don’t cut the noodles! Long noodles represent long life (if they’re cut, well… you get the point).
The pig, is well - a pig. They are happy, rotund, having a whole pig years ago represented good eating, and they ‘root forward’ when finding food which symbolizes progress. Whether it’s sausage (popular choices in Italy and Germany), a whole suckling pig (popular in Spain, Portugal and Hungary), or ham hock in collard greens popular in the American South, one thing is for sure - pork on a New Year’s table is considered very lucky in many places of the world.
We love this tradition. It started in Spain, where they eat twelve grapes, one for each number on the clock. This tradition then spread to Spanish and Portuguese regions where grapes now represent each month of the year. They even say that each grape’s taste represents how that particular month will go… A sweet grape will result in an extra special month. If your second grape is sour it might mean hardships in February. So, pick your grapes well!
This tradition is a bit messy, but we love it none the less. In Greece, housewives hang a pomegranate outside their front door. At the strike of midnight welcoming in the New Year - they smash the pomegranate against the door. Tradition has it, the more seeds that fall on the floor, the better fortune that will be had in the New Year.
Cakes with Hidden Treats
A number of countries eat cake, often a ring shaped cake on New Years Day. These cakes have something (an almond, a coin or other treats) baked into the batter. In Greece, a coin is hidden in Vasilopia. Mexico’s cake, Rosca de Reyes, hides a number of different treats. Once the cake is cut, the person who has the piece with the hidden treat is bound to have a wonderful year.
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