Informant: “In Sicily, well in other places in Italy sometimes too, but really in Sicily, on the Eve of the big holidays, so like Christmas Eve and New Years Eve, you’re supposed to eat fish, but in particular on Christmas eve. It was called the Feast of the Seven Fishes, though I actually think in Sicily they called it La Vigilia, for The Vigil. The real tradition is that you’re supposed to make seven types of seafood. So in Sicily, my mom and dad they always did this, so they would start cooking a few days before Christmas Eve. When we were growing up in Los Angeles, we would go down to Redondo Beach and my mom would buy all these fishes very similar to the fishes they would have in Sicily, so she would make calamari, like deep fried calamari. Oh, and one of the things she would buy is called baccala, which is like a dry, salted cod. I’ve actually seen it in some Italian places in St. Paul, they sell it in what looks like a big bucket, and it looks like just dried fish, and so you have to soak it in water overnight, and then you have to drain the water, and then you have to soak it again, and so basically you’re reconstituting the fish. And I think a lot of times people in Sicily have that one because there are a lot of poor people, and that kind of fish was really cheap. And so [my mother] would do that whole thing day after day after day, and then she would make this sauce that she would put this fish in like this tomato sauce, and then she would bake it. So she did baccala, she did calamari, she always did octopus salad. She would never make the kind of fishes that [my family has] like salmon, I never had salmon growing up. She would make these things called sand dabs, they looked like a kind of flatfish and she’d fry them, and anchovies and sardines, and she’d make this pasta with fennel and tuna sometimes… But she had enough fish to feed an army, when there were only six of us, but that’s very typical though in Sicily…What other fish did she make… oh, eel! She would always make eel. And I would have continued this tradition, except that [my children] don’t eat as much fish, that’s why I sort of incorporated it into [my family's traditions], that’s why we always have fish on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, so some years I would make stuffed salmon with crab and so on, but I found that [my family] just really liked crab, so that’s why we always have crab, and I figured, that was close enough.”
Collector: Was the exact number of fishes significant?
Informant: “Well, so it was feast of the seven fishes, though sometime we’d do nine, eleven, thirteen, but it’s always an odd number. I’m not really sure why, but it was supposed to have something to do with luck, like you’re never supposed to do an even number. As for fish, I guess with Sicily being an island, it was really easy for people to just go out and catch fish, and so that’s why they had fish.”
Informant is a retired math teacher, and a mother of three. Her parents moved to the United States for the Italian island of Sicily, and she was born in the United States and grew up in Los Angeles. She still keeps in touch with her Sicilian relatives, and will periodically visit them.
Collector Analysis: This particular piece of folklore is interesting in that it shows how certain folk traditions can evolve when they are practiced in different contexts, in this case, how the amount and type of fish eaten changed when the informant was celebrating this tradition in different locations and with different people, and yet the tradition is still in many ways the same despite these changes. Also curious is the fact that in Sicilian culture, the number 13 is considered lucky, while the number 12 is considered unlucky, which is the opposite of many other European cultures.
Informant’s self-description: “I am a large melting pot of everyone that I have ever met. Even if I did not really know who they were. And that makes me me! And different from everyone, ‘cause we all have different experiences. I am a video game person that loves a video game, and I love things that aren’t actually real life. But I also like real life! But sometimes fiction more so because the boundaries of what can be done are expanded. And that’s really cool to me. I like food – a lot. And I am a person that just wants to do a lot of things all the time. Forever.”
Are there any traditional food dishes that you consume or make on particular occasions?
Um, yes. Every New Year’s – well, Christmas and New Year’s, but because they’re so close together they just kinda happen in that sort of time slot. Christmas, my mom always makes this certain rice cake soup, it has – or mochi soup – and she prepares it all day, and then she makes the soup, and we have to eat it for dinner. And she adds eggs, and green onions, and seaweed, and we all sit down and we get special silverware and bowls out, and eat that for dinner, and then on New Year’s day, you have to eat the same thing, or you have to eat the mochi soup. It doesn’t have to be the exact same one from before because that would be nasty. But it would be like a new batch – the same recipe, obviously. And then you have to eat it for good luck in the New Year. And if you don’t you’ll have bad luck. But I haven’t experienced that yet because I’ve never turned down a bowl of my mother’s soup. Because why would you. Yeah- that’s the only sort of traditional thing that we have in my family.
You’ve always had mochi soup -
Since I can remember, yeah.
Do you like it?
I like it a lot. I kind of want it now.
Have you ever helped make it?
Uh, yes. Actually, I forgot a part of it- Once we were old enough, my mom made me and my two younger sisters – we made little dumplings, or I guess gyoza in Japanese. Little dumplings with pork and spices and meats and vegetables. We make the dumplings, and that’s a thing we always have to do on Chistmas and New Year’s Eve. Then my mom puts them in the soup and you can see all the little dumplings that you’ve made and usually we make really weird shapes. So sometimes you’ll get a nice little round moon shape and then you’ll get, like, a rectangle, and then they fall apart and you just have to have dumplings in your soup everywhere.
Do you try to make them into particular shapes?
Sometimes yeah, sometimes yeah. I tried to make a snowman dumpling once, and he kinda looked like a malformed sugar snap pea after. I was sad.
Was there a reason for the snowman?
I mean, it was Christmasy, sort of, and I was like “Oh, if we can shape dumplings, that’s sort of like shaping cookies when we make them for Santa. So I can just like form this with my fingers,” and then it fell apart, because she had to deep fry it and he was just kind of sad. And ripped apart. But it was ok, because it tasted delicious.
You helped make the dumplings – your mom makes the rest of it?
Mostly. It’s a pretty basic process, just making the broth, and then she throws in the little dumplings and the rice cakes. But she’s a very excellent cook so I wouldn’t want to disrupt anything in her kitchen – she’s a gale force wind when we step in and she’s not expecting us. It’s a danger zone.
Is it just your family? OR a tradition that many other people take part of?
I think it’s a Korean – well, Korean / Japanese tradition. My mother’s side of the family is Korean and it’s what she does, it’s what her side of the family does, but my baa-chan, or my grandma on my dad’s side who is Japanese – she always comes over and it seems like it’s something that she does too. She lives alone, and right next door to us, so she always comes over for all family celebrations. So I assume that it’s maybe just like a Far Eastern – Asian sort of deal. Maybe. I mean, it seems that way. I met a couple other families who do the same thing, Japanese or Korean.
Is there any symbolism to the food? Like the rice cake part of it?
I don’t really know. I feel like rice cakes in general are just kind of important to – maybe not the Korean culture so much as the Japanese culture because my grandma, my baa-chan, she sometimes throughout the year – she’ll just be making large things of rice cakes. Just in the kitchen. And there’s no reason for it, she’s just doing it. And I’m like “Ok…!” And there’s just like a lot of rice, and a little machine going around that like smashes it and whirls it around and stuff. But I think specifically would be for Japanese holidays and New Year’s and Christmas. But I mean she kind of just does them whenever.
Do you speak fluent Japanese?
I don’t, I unfortunately speak neither of my family languages. I know how to say very basic things.
Informant gives lots of background to the mochi soup. Informant sounds fond in description, and it makes them think of the family they love.
This is a New Year’s tradition practiced by my informant and her family every year.
“If you have collard greens on January first then you’ll make a lot of money, maybe because they’re both green. Similarly, if you have black eyed peas, then you’ll have luck throughout the rest of the year. And it has to be on January first. And then you just have meat, that’s not symbolic but you need something to go with collard greens and the black eyed peas. My grandmother told me that, and so she cooks for us for every new year.”
The tradition of eating black eyed peas for luck is also a Jewish tradition, and goes back for many centuries. It’s popular in the American south, probably brought there by the Jews and adopted by the society at large. As the informant says, collard greens are also a common New Year’s food thought to bring wealth in the coming year, as they resemble American bills. Both foods are exceptionally common in the American south (thus allowing most people to partake in the tradition without causing undue budgetary stress), which is where my informant’s family lives. The emphasis on it being January 1st also reflects the notion of its importance as the beginning of a new unit of time, in a liminal period where anything could happen and one could presumably set the tone for the next stage in life (ie, the new year).
“On New Year’s, we eat black eyed peas and greens.”
My informant is of Italian Catholic extraction and grew up in Chicago. Despite her family having no connection to the South, they eat the traditionally Southern dish of black eyed peas and greens on New Year’s. This is an indication of the way that culture spreads throughout the United States. Both foods are traditionally lucky to eat, especially as a way to help ring in the new year. My informant wasn’t sure what the significance of the foods is; she just knows that it’s lucky and they do it every year.
Born in an agricultural town in South Korea, the informant shared the tradition of cooking and eating 떡국 (duk guk), a rice cake soup that sometimes includes dumplings called 만두 (mandu), on New Year’s day, or 설날(Seollal). The informant explained that her first memory eating the soup was at the age of three, and it has since been so ingrained in her lifestyle that she has carried the practice over to America, where she and her family enjoy the delicacy each New Year. As the informant spoke about the yearly tradition, she was in the process of cooking dinner for her family, and she added that this felt natural to her because cooking in groups was often a social experience as well in Korea, when women could talk freely with one another.
We always eat duk guk on New Year’s. We always eat it for breakfast New Year’s morning. The tradition of making mandu in our family began when I was, eh. . .maybe seven or eight. It was always the women. The men usually gathered together in another room and drank and played cards. Duk guk is part of our inherited culture. Duk is, you know, long and a little thicker. . .it’s like a water hose, and when they actually make duk in a big kitchen or factory it’s almost as long as a water hose, too (the ones I bought at the market for you and your brother when you were kids are just always already cut up). But, when I was little we would take the really long duk home and after it hardened a little bit we would cut up in the oval shape that you see in the duk guk. The long duk symbolizes long life, which is why we eat it on New Year’s. Duk guk is made with beef broth, which we make first, and then we add the duk, and then the mandu, and then a little bit of egg, and finally we sprinkle thinly sliced seaweed over the top.
The mandu that we put in the duk guk is a fun activity that allowed us ladies to get together. We make it in an assembly line style, and we assign who does what part depending on what they are good at―some people are better at mixing, or putting the stuffing in, or folding the dumplings. Making the mandu is where the cooks can get more artistic; each person might make them a little differently, and if you’ve been making mandu together for a long time you can tell who made what dumpling. During the mandu-making process we might be gossiping, or telling funny stories, that’s how it’s always been.
The funny thing is that, in Korea, once you eat duk guk on New Year’s day, everyone gets one year older. So in Korea, you do not age on your birthday. . . everyone ages on New Year’s day. You might still have a small celebration on your actual birth date, but you earn one more year only on New Year’s Day. You get a year when you’re born―you’re already one year old, and then you get another year when you eat the duk. That’s why your Korean age and American age might be a little different. Oh, and didn’t I tell you? . . everyone eats duk guk.
The informant’s description elegantly explains the reasoning behind why duk, the rice cake, is eaten on New Year’s. The combination of its symbolism of long life paired with the process of aging collectively on New Year’s in Korea shows that, in Korean culture, perhaps there is a muted emphasis on individual importance (i.e. a big birthday celebration for each person). This value is seen again in the dumpling-making process, as each person contributes to one dumpling, only able to express their individualism and talent in little, creative ways. The women, quite literally, expend equal amounts of energy during the cooking process, and thus the food presented to the men and rest of the family is a undoubtedly collective effort. The informant also emphasizes several times that “everyone” eats the dumpling soup, implying the link to a national identity when Koreans eat duk guk.
Contextual Data: I had been hanging out with one of my friends and we got into a conversation about our different cultures and religious backgrounds—he’s a Persian who practices the Baha’i faith. And at one point, he mentioned the Persian New Year, which had just occurred the previous month on March 20th. He grew up in the United States and his whole family (including his grandparents and his extended family) lives here, but they still partake in the these New Years’ traditions. I asked him to tell me more about it — about any specific characteristics or rituals — and the following is an exact transcript of what he described.
“The only ritual I can think of in New Years celebration is the arrangement of what’s called the Haft Sín — Sín is equivalent to the letter “S” in the English alphabet and Haft means “seven.” So what Iranians do in their homes is they create… um…kind of like a banquet of different items beginning with that letter that all have a symbol. Like síb, which means “apple” in Farsi, is a symbol of health and life. And sekhé, which is like a gold coin, is a symbol of wealth. And…um… I think sekhé—No… Seer, which is garlic, is like a symbol of fertility. Or… There’s—There’s like a lot of these different things. I think that there’s apples, there’s goldfish, there’s painted eggs…Yeah. [Laughs.]”
- End Transcript -
A few other items that can be a part of the Haft Sín, which my informant later mentioned to me, are: sumac, which is a spice; sír, which is vinegar; sangak, which is wheat bread; and then sometimes a bed of wheatgrass, which the family has grown. When I asked him about what he thought the significance of it was, he replied, “It’s just like, if another Persian came into your house around that time, they would like, look at your Haft Sín and be like ‘Oh, that’s nice’— Kind of like the Christmas tree for Christians, in a way.”
My informant mentioned that in Persian culture, Naw Rúz falls on the first day of spring (usually March 21st), which he says relates to the symbolic idea of spring as “the beginning of life.” So in thinking about Naw Rúz as a celebration of this new life, as well as the liminal nature of the New Year (the in-between phase when people pass from one year to the next), it seems as though the Haft Sín is an important way of ushering in luck for the “new life” ahead — good luck related to health, wealth, fertility, and so on. My friend mentioned that the arrangement varies from family to family, and that the arrangement can exceed seven items, which suggests that it can be a more individual reflection of what a family is hoping to be blessed with in the upcoming year. The arrangement therefore also seems like an important way of bringing together the family.
Given that my informant and his family live in the United States, part of the reason for partaking in this tradition could also be as a means of holding on to their Persian culture.
This offers another description of the Haft Sín table, listing additional items, as well as alternative symbolic meanings to the items. This again alludes to the way that the arrangement can vary from family to family, based on the faith of the family and on what they might be looking forward to in the New Year. Social media also presents a great way to see this variation—searching the hashtag “#haftsin” on Instagram or Tumblr pulls up photos from many different users, illustrating the different ways that Iranian families arrange their tables, as well as what items they include in the arrangement.
Note: My informants are originally from Mississippi.
Good luck for the New Year
Recipe for Black-eyed peas
Boil the peas with hammock for 2 hours. Pour over rice with cornbread.
According to my informant it is a common Southern tradition to eat black eyed peas on New Year’s Day. Its supposed to be good luck, my informant didn’t know why. All the cooking is done on the day of the New Year’s Day. My informant loves this tradition. She does this every year. She says she learned it from her mother.
I would like to know why black-eyed are specifically good luck. My family has made this dish before but there nothing particularly special about it. It was just dinner. Maybe the eye shapes are what make them so lucky. Eyes have been put on good luck charms in various places because they ward off the evil eye. Although the evil eye folk belief is not that common in the states so maybe there’s not much of a connection there.
In the following, my informant told me about a tradition his family has of swimming in ice cold water on New’s Year’s Eve:
Informant: Starting from 2000 this group of old men and women from my close group of friends and families observe a tradition of, uh, cutting a hole in the ice during the winter on news years day and swimming
Me: Really, where do you live?
Informant: I live in Michigan, so, uh…
Me: And that’s fun?
Informant: yeah every New Years, like, Eve like the evening before, we cut a giant like strip of ice out from, like, cause their dock is like an elephant, so we cut the strip off from there and, and everybody, and the tradition is to start on this uh, its like a deer skin like pelt, and one of the, one of my buddy’s relatives is is like, hes got a lot of Native American in him, which, I dont know what it has to do with anything really, but they start on, everybody starts on this deer pelt, and they jump into the ice water.
Me: How do you cut the ice?
Informant: Chainsaw, depending on how thick it is. Sometime it hasn’t gotten that frozen over yet
Me: How long do you stay in for?
Informant: I mean, everybody does it differently, like, the kids will just like hop in and get out, some of the other guys will, like, stay in for a while… its its actually pretty dangerous… then you just get out, dry off, and wait for the rest of the people to go through, although when you get out you’re actually warmer; you feel warm because the air feels so much warmer than the water, and your body has this sensation of like, feeling almost numb.
My informant suggested this tradition arose from the Native American heritage of one of his family members. Although he said he was unaware of the specific traditions which led to its practiced, it is now something his family and friends have observed for the past thirteen years, and at least for them it has grown to represent the bonding of family and friendship before the start of the new year.
Ok, so during New Years Eve we do this thing, before coming into the New Year, that everyone has to wear red underwear. And the reason why we do that is because it’s supposed to bring you good luck coming into the New Year for some reason, I don’t know. I learn about this tradition when I was about four or five? Well, mainly because my whole family does it, and, to this day, every time I, like, celebrate new years in Spain every single one in my family is still wearing red underwear during new years eve.
There are many different new year rituals that people around the world perform: some people drink champagne because it symbolizes wealth and the possibility of attaining it that year; some people carry a suitcase around with the hope that they will travel extensively the next year; some people run a mile just before the clock strikes twelve to ensure good health in the new year.
Sergio’s family tradition in Spain is rather interesting. After hearing him recount this tradition, I wondered about two things in particular: why underwear, and why the color red?
The color red normally symbolizes passion, love, lust. The fact that he and his family ascribe the color red to general luck is very interesting. I asked him if he meant “luck in love”, but he said no, “just overall luck”. I have always known luck to be associated with the color green.
When I asked Sergio why the underwear was important, he didn’t know. “I just learned it from my family, and we’ve been doing it forever.” We discussed it and came to the following conclusion: because underwear is the innermost layer of clothing and, thus, is closest to your body, it would have the greatest effect. This, of course, is pure speculation but does offer a decent hypothesis.
I find this tradition interesting but a bit strange. The color red throws me off. If I were to desire luck in love in the New Year then perhaps I would wear red underwear (especially since underwear covers the genitals—key players in sex). My family has the tradition of throwing money out of the house to bring wealth in the New Year. Unlike Sergio, I do not continue this practice. When I lived with my parents I occasionally partook in the tradition. Now that I am at college I no longer choose to continue the practice as I don’t find that it really works.
My informant has a diverse familial background. Her maternal side of the family has been living in Pennsylvania for about 300 years, and is deeply entrenched in the Pennsylvania Dutch folkloric traditions. Her paternal family has come to America fairly recently – her grandparents emigrated from Italy shortly before her father was born.
Her family has a variety of New Year’s Eve traditions that they practice.
The first is that on New Year’s, my informant’s father gives each family member a silver coin. He used to give them an actual silver coin, but in recent years has been distributing dimes wrapped in foil. They then keep these silver (or silver wrapped) coins in their wallet for the rest of the year. Doing so ensures prosperity for the coming year. Each year, my informant gets rid of the old coin, and receives a new one. She isn’t sure where this tradition came from, but thinks it came from her Italian grandparents who have passed away. A Google search showed that this tradition is actually common in a lot of cultures. Even though she doesn’t know the origins of this tradition, she continues to believe in and practice it, which is a testament to the power of folklore and superstitions.
The second New Year’s tradition that my informant practices is that precisely at midnight, she opens the back door to let the old year out, and then opens the front door to let the new year in. She has seen this ritual being practiced elsewhere in the community, such as at her friends’ houses when she goes to celebrate New Year’s with them.
New Year’s is a liminal period, especially at midnight. Because it is a liminal time, there are many rituals associated with New Year’s. Oftentimes, there is a belief that your behavior on New Year’s will carry into the next year, such as in the case of the silver dime. It is a time of moving on, and of leaving behind the past, as my informant’s family does by ritualistically ushering out the past before welcoming in the present.