Inevitably, any New Year’s celebration is highly symbolic. Many cultures and even individuals believe that starting new means going through certain rites of passage, from cleaning the house inside-out, getting rid of the old, putting coins in every corner of the house and wearing polka dots when the clock strikes midnight. In a sense, many people also prepare with the same amount of vigor as the Christmas holidays. In addition to the fireworks, the meals and the parties, many people believe that no stone should be left unturned in order to turn one’s luck around. And of course, food is not overlooked when it comes to these symbolic rituals.
Interestingly, there are similarities around the world when it comes to culinary beliefs come New Year’s Eve. Chinese traditions in China and other parts of Asia always highlight the importance of round foods served for the midnight meal. Round fruits are expected to grace the table with the expected thirteen different types. Hence, every family can get creative as to what they consider as round, with some counting the pineapple because of its many “round eyes”. Mandarin oranges are the usual staples as they are believed to bring luck, and of course, they are spherical. Sticky foods are considered popular as well, especially with the Chinese pudding called nian giao, a glutinous rice cake. Although this is more in-demand during the Chinese New Year (and also eaten the rest of the year), the importance of nian gao during the New Year’s celebrations is because the words nian (sticky) sounds like “year” in Chinese, and gao sounds like “high”.
The Dutch also believe in the power of the “rounded” food because it means coming full circle. Hence, doughnuts are quite popular among the Dutch every New Year. Spain and other Spanish speaking countries also consume twelve pieces of grapes by midnight. Although the ritual began for the purpose of consuming surplus grape harvests, the twelve grapes are actually symbolic of the twelve months. Hence, to those who consume a sour grape on the third time, it means a sour third month next year. It is also believed that these grapes should be consumed before midnight, but in Peru, they consume a thirteenth grape after twelve for good measure.
Anther popular dish are made of legumes such as beans and peas. These are popular in the Americas and in Europe. Legumes are popular because they look like coins, hence eating them is similar to being blessed with money. Legumes are usually consumed as soup (i.e. Brazil) or as sides that supplement another “lucky” food, pork. In Japan, legumes are popular lucky foods as well. The Japanese consume kuro-mame or black bean dish as part of the osechi-ryori which is a composition of symbolic meals that are eaten during the first three days of the new year.
Pork is also considered a lucky food because in many cultures, hogs are considered prosperous. Many pork dishes such as roasted and suckling pig are served in countries such as Cuba, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, and Austria. Because pork has a high fat content and the pig moves forward, it symbolizes wealth and progress. Fish is also considered lucky because it can be preserved and transported. Old religious restrictions on red meat was also a reason why fish has been an acceptable meat on New Year’s day. In Japan, fish and other seafood are also consumed because they symbolize fertility (the herring roe), long-life (shrimp) and sardines (good harvest).
Of course, if there are lucky meats on New Year’s Day, there are those are unlucky as well. Any winged creature such as chicken, turkey and goose should be avoided because luck can fly away. Some seafood such as lobsters are considered bad luck because they move backwards.
Greens are also generally favorites because “green” symbolizes money although it should be also considered that among the food you have been eating over the holidays requires some green intervention. In Denmark, stewed kale is a common New Year’s vegetable dish whereas in Germany, sauerkraut is never absent on the New Year’s table. Americans also love their greens on New Year’s, particularly collards.
And last but not the least, who celebrates New Year’s without any sweet pastry or cake? Anything round, spherical and sweet are common across many countries, and they symbolize a fortunate cycle in the coming year. Italians fried pasta dough balls called the chiacchiere which is drenched in sugar. Doughnut-like pastries are popular in many European countries. Many customs also bake cakes and sweets with hidden fortune trinkets; anyone who gets the trinket will have the most luck that year. This is practiced in Greece with its special round cake called the vasilopita; Mexico’s ring-shaped cake called rosca de reyes; and the sweet rice pudding in Scandinavia hiding that one, fortunate whole almond.
It seems as though food preparations for the New Year’s have many requirements. Even though they can be painstaking, people all over the world keep the tradition alive for the purpose of ensuring a wonderful year. Whether these are true or not, the main point of the celebrations is to look forward to the new year with a significant amount of optimism.