New Year’s food customs around the world

by Brian Clarey

Everybody around here knows what passes for New Year’s Day in the South: a cheap-beer hangover and a steaming plate of hopping john made from black-eyed peas and collard greens, maybe a slab of cornbread and, for the more sophisticated North Carolinians, a bloody Mary heavy with Worcestershire sauce.

But Jan. 1 clicks off a new calendar year all over the world, and all cultures have their way of ushering in the new year while showing the old one the door. And as is the celebratory norm, food plays a major role in each end-of-year party.

In Japan they know how to do it: The New Year’s Eve bonenkai – literally “year forgetting” parties – lasts for three days and include revelry and feasting on traditional dishes that can be prepared in advance and stored without refrigeration, a tradition held over from the country’s distant past when most stores were closed for the holidays. Osechi are like bento boxes of prepared foods like tiny omelets, roe, broiled fish paste and kuro-mame, black soybeans that are said to deliver a year of good health. Ozoni is a soup made from gelatinous rice balls. And during the holiday season the Japanese eat lots and lots of tuna, raw and cold.

For Greeks the first day of the new year coincides with St. Basil’s Day, and the day’s celebration is closely linked to the life of the saint. St. Basil would have the wealthier members of his church bake cakes with coins in them for distribution among the poorer members of the congregation, some of whom would end up with a coin-filled slice. The cakes, called “vasilopita,” are still a part of New Year’s Day in Greek households and whoever finds the coin is said to have a lucky year.

Italians celebrate everything, from a baptism to a funeral, with copious amounts of food. On il capodanno they eat lentils, which symbolize money, paired with either cotechino, a fat pork sausage, or zampone, a pig’s foreleg de-boned and stuffed with meat and spices.

Maybe it sounds gross, but Italians have been eating zampone since the 1500s when Pope Giuilio II, the “Warrior Pope,” besieged the city of Modena for forming an alliance with Venice. The Modensi had no food coming in so they were forced to stretch what they had, and what they had was pigs.

Italians also started the practice of wearing red underwear on New Year’s Eve, though that his little or nothing to do with epicurean tradition.

A hundred years ago in Spain the grape farmers were blessed with an unusually large harvest, which led them to believe in the connection with fresas and suerte. On New Year’s Eve in Spain the clock at the Plaza del Sol in Madrid is broadcast around the country kind of like our ball in Times Square. As the clock strikes 12, Spaniards are supposed to eat one grape at each chime.

A German tradition is to eat herring at midnight and pork with sauerkraut on the first day of the year. It brings good luck, supposedly. In Poland they say eating pickled herring on the first day of the year is lucky. Buddhist monks say that eating long noodles at midnight ensures a long life, as long as the noodles aren’t cut. In the Philippines it is customary to set a full table of food at midnight. They eat cod in Holland and doughnuts in Denmark and cabbage-wrapped beef in Bosnia.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t chow down on a pile of nachos in front of a football game on Jan. 1. This is America, people.

To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at