Tag Archives: traditions

New Year’s Traditions

I’ve been very fortunate to have traveled broadly in the last 14 years, and I’ve spent quite a few New Year’s Eves abroad.

I’ve spent it in Thailand, where everyone sprays everyone else with water…you have to leave your cell phone and personal electronics at home, because, as a Westerner, you get DRENCHED with buckets of ice cold water…which feels great, because it’s VERY hot and muggy in Thailand around that time.

I’ve spent it in Australia, where it’s the armpit of summer, so everyone goes to the park to watch the fireworks over the Sydney harbor bridge.  MASSIVE quantities of beer are consumed.  (Australians can DRINK.  When I say massive quantities, it doesn’t even compare what what we Americans consider to be “a lot” of beer.)  I actually got woken up at 6am on New Year’s Day and drug BACK to the bar for more drinking.  My pickled liver was not pleased.

I’ve spent it in Brasil, where everyone diligently peels 12 green grapes in the moments before midnight.  At midnight, they pop a grape with each gong of the church bell, then they all run and jump into the ocean.  (It’s summer there, too.)  If one of the grapes happens to be sour, that’s a portent of a bad month in the coming year.  (If the third grape was sour, you’re gonna have a crappy March.)

I’ve spent it on a ship off the coast of Antarctica.  And let me tell you…the penguins have the most BIZARRE New Year’s Eve ritual.  They go skiing…

Well, they probably don’t do it ONLY on New Year’s Day.  But they DO ski, apparently for fun.  There was a line of them trudging up a snowy trail to the top of the slope, then one by one they ski down to the bottom.  Then up they go again!  It’s adorable.

One of our most established New Years’ traditions in the US is culinary.  Black Eyed Peas.  If you live in New York or Boston or Chicago…there’s about a 50/50 chance you’ve never heard of this tradition.  But if you have roots anywhere in the South, chances are you know it.  And if you haven’t kept it up…shame on you!

I always ate black eyed peas on New Year’s Day with my family, but had never heard the term “Hoppin’ John” until a decade ago.  That’s what it’s officially called in the south.  That, or “Hoppy John.”  (Of course, the leftovers magically and bizarrely change names on January 2, when they suddenly become “Skippin’ Jane” without you having to do anything to modify them.  Two dishes for the price and effort of one!)  No one can say for sure where the dish got the name, though it appears in cookbooks as early as the 1850’s.  The people of Charleston, South Carolina like to say that it was invented in their town by an African American who was handicapped, so that he “hopped” around town and was known to everyone as “Hoppin’ John.”  On New Year’s Day he would boil up a kettle of black eyed peas, rice, and pork, so the dish was named in his honor.

In reality, spicy stewed black eyed peas are an ancient staple in Africa (where the stew is called Maharagwe) and both the black eyed pea AND the recipe crossed the ocean to the New World during the horrific era of slavery, where it became firmly cemented into the cuisine of the American South.

Black eyed peas are actually beans, not peas, but they cook so quickly they’re not like most beans.  You don’t have to pre-soak them, and they cook through in less than an hour, unlike pinto or kidney or black beans.  They are considered a good luck symbol because, in the old days, they resembled the small coins of the era, so they were thought to symbolize wealth.  (Analogizing beans with wealth goes back to ancient Europe.)

Another component of Hoppin’ John is pork.  I use smoked pork jowls (cheeks), and would never use anything else, but if you can’t find them, or are totally grossed out by the thought of eating cheek meat (you shouldn’t, it tastes like bacon, only meatier and richer)…use bacon, salt pork, ham…any kind of cured pork will do nicely.  Pork is considered to be a good luck meat all over the world, because pigs are a symbol of progress.  Why, I’m not sure…perhaps it’s because they spend all day rooting up the soil with their snout and moving forward.  Birds, on the other hand, are NEVER eaten on New Year’s Day, because they scratch “backward” while searching for food…and you certainly don’t want to move backwards in the New Year!  Likewise, crustaceans that move backward like lobster and crawfish are traditionally avoided.

Hoppin’ John is almost always served with collard greens or some other type of pot green.  Greens are…well…green.  The color of money.  And are thus consumed widely all over the world on New Year’s Day.  I just add greens to my Hoppin’ John.  If I’m developing a flavorful stock to cook my peas in, why on earth would I not want to incorporate the greens as well?!?  You can check out my Hoppin’ John recipe here. I also have a video that describes the recipe:

Whether or not you believe in the links between luck and food, it is this aspect of food and culture that makes food so fascinating to me.  Food isn’t just survival for us.  It is buried into the core of our beliefs, whether religious, superstitious, romantic…  Foods truly symbolize different things to different cultures.  And it’s a big world out there.  So much to learn!

I wish you, dear friends, family, and fans, all the best in the coming year.  May your life be filled with success, happiness, and joy.  This is a challenging time for our nation.  Our economy hasn’t been this bad since the Great Depression.  But I have traveled the width and breadth of the world, and I can tell you this for certain:  You don’t have to be wealthy…or even “financially secure” (whatever that means) to be happy.  The happiest, most generous people I’ve ever met were penniless Bedouins who wander the deserts of Egypt.  I have felt more joy, acceptance, love, and happiness in shacks, crumbling cave homes, and tents amongst poverty stricken people in Asia and Africa and Latin America than I’ve ever felt in gleaming mansions in the US or Europe.

Please never equate money with happiness and success.  These are found within, and they don’t need material things to exist…in fact they are often hindered by material things.  Treasure your friends, your family, your memories.  A favorite song moves your heart in a way that your direct-deposit paycheck never can.  Looking at your puppy or kitty strikes a cord that looking at your car or house never will.  This year, take stock in the TRUE things of value that you have in your life, and focus on cultivating those.  You will feel wealthier than you can imagine!

Weird Christmases

Christmas seems to get more and more distant the older I get. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have children. Or perhaps Christmas in America IS, indeed, changing. More frantic. Less time to prepare, but a stronger, unspoken obligation to prepare, and a heavy guilt trip if you don’t.

There’s a distinct voice in my head that says, “Your Christmases are numbered and if you DON’T take your friends out to look at Christmas lights, and if you DON’T go to choral concerts at churches, and if you DON’T put up lights and a tree, you’ll have wasted something very precious.”

But this isn’t an essay on how Christmas in America has changed. This is an essay on Christmas traditions in other countries, just as a passing curiosity to all three of our readers…a lovely way to spend fifteen minutes during the holiday season.

J-P and I recently returned from Hong Kong. Christmas is certainly NOT an ancient Chinese tradition, but Hong Kong was a British territory for so long that the traditions DID get practiced there (by the minority British population) and the Chinese observed them with curiosity.

Now that the British are out (white westerners make up less than 1% of the population in Hong Kong), the Cantonese Hong Kongers have adopted and adapted Christmas and it is practiced with glee and delight. J-P and I sat on the lap of a jolly Santa Claus one night and he asked us what we wanted for Christmas. But you can bet that we didn’t get funny looks, as we would at a mall in Dallas.

Santa Claus in Hong Kong

Santa in the Far East

The children were getting pushed consistently to the back of the line, and it was almost entirely adults sitting on jolly St. Nick’s lap, getting their photos made, and telling him what they wanted for Christmas. Also, the Chinese almost uniformly make the “peace” sign when they get their photos made with Santa.

Hong Kong Christmas TreesThey have another tradition which is an adaptation of the Christmas tree. They write wishes on little cards and attach them to Christmas trees in public squares. These trees become heavily overleaden with wishes, and you can stop and read them while you’re out for a walk. (I never saw a Chinese do it, so perhaps it was inappropriate of me to do it, but I was certainly fascinated…) Most were written in Chinese, but the few that were written in English, or both languages, were heart-warming to read, and often dealt with the health of loved-ones and the peace of the world than wishes for Ipods and tiny camera phones and cars.

I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in New York City with Christian’s Brasilian family. Their traditions revolve around food, but not the turkey and spiral-cut ham like ours. On Christmas Eve they eat a pasta called cappelletti, which is something like a larger tortellini, stuffed with chicken, ricotta, and nutmeg, served in a rich chicken broth. Wow is it good!

On Christmas Day they eat pork tenderloin roasted with fruits. And they have a specialty stuffing or dressing called “farofa” that is prepared at Christmas, and is a wildly complex blend of manioc (a coarse Brasilian flour made from the root of the yucca plant), roasted chestnuts, scrambled eggs, olives, vegetables, and bacon. It has a very, very dry consistency and bland flavor from the yucca flour, but the items found in it are all very moist and exploding with flavor, and varying in texture. It’s really delightful. Dessert is pastiera, a lightly-sweet cheesecake that has tender bulgar wheat mixed in with the cheese filling.

As a side note, on New Year’s Day, for good luck, they eat 12 grapes, one for each month of the coming year, and they go to the beach and jump waves (maybe symbolic of leaping life’s hurdles, I’m not sure.)

Leif, a dear friend of mine, recently moved to Buenos Aires, and this Christmas he went with a friend to the north of Argentina to experience a traditional Argentine Christmas. It consisted of dinner at 10pm, fireworks at midnight, followed by all generations going to the disco to dance until 10am the next morning.

So no matter how kooky Christmas becomes in America, rest assured that things are still stranger in other climes.