Tag Archives: new years

12 grapes

BACKGROUND: My informant, IC, was born in the US. His entire family is from Ecuador and is bilingual (English and Spanish). IC and I were having a conversation about our families and party customs among immigrants and he brought up this custom that his family uses for good luck.

CONTEXT: This piece is from a conversation with my friend. We originally started talking about our families and the different family parties we’ve been to and that eventually morphed into IC explaining a custom his family has on New Year’s.

IC: For new years, there’s 12 grapes that are meant to represent the 12 months in a year. Right before the new year, when it’s like 11:59, you eat all the grapes. Basically, after each grape you eat, you have to like, make a wish. Oh and — oo! Wait… (long pause) I’m literally stupid as sh-t, I just remembered um, during the new year too, like once it hits 12, you need to throw rice around your whole house. It’s supposed to be so that the next year you have food.

THOUGHTS: This custom is interesting to me because I feel like it is much more in line with the idea of the new year being a time of celebrating change and preparing for the future. In American culture, it is customary to give someone a kiss at midnight for good luck. The 12 grapes however are almost like 12 different resolutions, preparing the person for what they want in the coming year.


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L.S.: Il Vecchione is a representative figure made of wood which at the end of the year, is burned, metaphorically representing the destruction of the old and of the bad things which happened during the year, so to begin the new year with novelty, curiosity and…and some sort of positivity. 


My informant was born in the Tosco-Emilian Apennines (Italy) in 1931. While she spent the majority of her childhood there, she moved to Bologna, Italy, when she was about 13, and she has been living there ever since. She members going to Bologna’s main square, every year of her adolescence to witness this ritualistic performance with the whole city’s community gathered there.


The informant recounted me this while having a tea in her living room and taking about traditions which have been carried out, throughout time, in the city of Bologna. 


Since antiquity, many were the ritualistic traditions related to the time cycle, and, in particular, New Year’s Eve has alway represented the liminal day par excellence, it being the relatively short period of time between the end of the old year and the advent of the new. 

The tradition of burning a pile of wood, in this case portrayed with human features and appearances, is common to quite a lot of cultures and it plays the role of keystone in the natural and social cycle of seasons. As a matter of fact, as my informant pointed out, il Vecchione, which in Italian translates into ‘the super-old’, is lighted up on fire in the attempt of destroying what is old, past and to-be-forgotten -eliminating also all the bad and negative events the year which is ending has brought with it-, so that from its ashes a new, glorious and successful year -and consequently man- can rise and flourish. A type of ritualistic passage is committed, that is, the passage between one cycle of time and the next one is, through the burning, fulfilled and completed. 

Korean New Year

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Korean New Year 

Background on Informant: 

Currently a student, my informant grew up in a Korean household and has shared with me the many traditions she grew up practicing and experienced throughout her life. 


She explains:

“Korean New Year is based off the Korean calendar, and it is one of most important holidays we celebrate. 

It usually lasts for three days, the day before, the day itself, and the day after and begins either in January or February.

I know in South Korea it is of major importance to the point where businesses close for days and families honor their ancestors. 

Before we eat, we make sure to place offerings to our ancestors and then everyone in the family does deep bows as a sign of respect. 

For me, I usually gather with with family and friends and we do the traditional bow and we are given a ton of money. 

The traditional meal we eat is the Tteokguk, which is a soup with rice cakes, and symbolically once you eat it you are ‘one year older’. 

Technically we’re supposed to wear hanboks, which is our traditional clothing, but the tradition has evolved to the point where we just wear more westernized clothing. 

The feast is amazing, my mom makes so much food and leftovers usually last a week. 

While I do celebrate the Western New Year’s as well, I prefer the Korean one because we are spoiled with gifts and food.” 


I learned so much from my informant about Korean traditional culture and practices and found myself wanting to learn more. I love how a common trend is the three day celebration and how unlike in the USA the celebration is continued for multiple days. I have also observed how food plays a major role in Korean heritage and customs, as well as the symbolism behind each meal. I love how Koreans retain their cultural identity with their connection to the past and of course honoring their ancestors. Koreans values and traditions are a huge part of connecting with the past and allowing future generations to continue these practices. 

Japanese New Year Feast

Every year, the informant cooks a Japanese New Year Feast for their family. It is an all-day affair where hundreds of guests, friends and family, can come and go to eat lunch and/or dinner and socialize with those present. The informant makes the following traditional dishes:
Ozoni (rice cake in vegetable soup) is the first thing eaten on New Year’s day and wishes good health and prosperity to the family
Gomame (dried sardines) to bless attendees with health
Kombu Maki (rolled kelp) to bring happiness and joy
Kuri Kinton (sweet potato or lima bean paste with chestnuts) to bring wealth
Renkon (lotus root) as a symbol for the wheel of life
Daikon (white raddish), carrots, and other root vegetables to promote deep family roots
Ise ebi (lobster) for the festive red color and to symbolize old age and longevity; note: the lobster must be served whole and cannot be broken lest the spine of the old ones break
The informant learned to cook and serve these dishes from their mother and has trained their daughter in how to give the feast. To the informant, The New Year is the most important holiday of the year as it is when the entire extended family comes together. Food preparations begin weeks before the event and there are leftovers for days after as a result of the concern that the table could run out of food.
My Thoughts
Some of the foods look similar to an object such as the lotus root looking like a wheel or the lobster’s spine curving like the spine of an older person while others symbolize good things for their cost or how the word for the food sounds similar to the word for whatever it symbolizes. The feast was a time to celebrate and welcome the New Year and do things that would hopefully ensure prosperity. It was a time where social barriers could be crossed and family meant everything. The extensive amount of time taken to prepare the foods probably shows the care that the family and friends have for one another and the desire to serve each other. The pursuit of good fortune in the food symbolism is an acknowledgement of the lack of control that they have over many aspects of their lives, particularly for the peasants who depended so much on the rulers of their areas.



NS, my father, is a 55-year-old Dutch immigrant to the US. He grew up in the small town of Delft. He told me about this new year’s eve food tradition that is observed where he grew up.


NS: New years is one of the most important holidays for the Dutch. On new years’ eve, we would gather together, there would be on the TV a comedian doing a run-down of the year, and we would have oliebollen (oil balls). They are a food you only eat during new years and you can get them from a stand on the street in late December. My mom used to make them. To make them, you put some flour and yeast together in a bowl with some sugar to let the mixture rise. Then you add all kinds of stuff in it: nuts, apple, raisins, cranberries, other dried fruits. You plop them into balls and fry them in oil. Then once you’re done you can put some powdered sugar on them.


The informant, even though he now lives in San Francisco, makes this treat every year as a member of a global nationality. He likes oliebollen because he associates the taste with childhood memories and festivities. He told me that the new year is one of the most important and elaborate celebrations for the Dutch, so it makes sense that he wants to keep this foodway alive as he carries out his identity as a Dutch-American. I have eaten them every new year as well, the informant is my dad, and I have to say that the taste definitely reminds me of that particular time. Since they are only consumed once a year for this event, they take on a special significance and anticipation which leads me to savor each bite when I get the chance. The food tradition is a way for my dad to keep his sense of Dutch-ness alive as he lives abroad in a foreign land.