In 1969, Johnny Mathis had a holiday hit with “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” For years, I have heard Mathis woo his crush with the schmaltz of “Wonder whose arms will hold you good and tight when it’s exactly twelve o’clock that night….welcoming in the New Year….New Year’s Eve.”
Since the composer Frank Loesser died three months before Mathis even released that song, I can only assume that perhaps there is more to these lines than just some guy wishing he could be with some girl to ring in the New Year. A longstanding New Year’s Eve tradition is that whatever you are doing as the clock strikes midnight on that day is what you will spend most of your time doing in the coming year. I think Loesser had that tradition in mind when he wrote those sappy lyrics.
In other words, those who are in love will want to be holding their sweethearts close when the calendar turns—as a predictor for the coming year. (Let’s hope those of you who didn’t make it ‘til midnight last Sunday night won’t sleep your year away—superstition, be gone!)
My daughter Meghann likes to quote Michael Scott from the TV sitcom, “The Office”: “I’m not SUPER-stitious, but I am a little ‘stitious.” Although I am not even “a little ‘stitious,” I always want to be praying as the New Year begins. I guess I want to set the standard for the coming year right away. Perhaps that is why so many churches have “Watch Night Services” on December 31.
Some say the Moravians started that tradition back in 1733 in what is now the Czech Republic. John Wesley, whom many associate with the early Methodist Church, popularized watch night services called “Covenant Renewal Services,” beginning in 1740. Wesley and other preachers saw this as a way to keep Christians from engaging in the typical New Year’s drunkenness and party behavior. Catholic churches often have a midnight mass which serves a similar purpose.
The watch night service became particularly meaningful among African-Americans after New Year’s Eve 1862 when large numbers of slaves met in churches that night to celebrate President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation which went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863.
Did any of you Southerners eat our region’s traditional New Year’s Day meal to bring good luck in the coming year—black-eyed peas, greens, hog jowl and cornbread? Despite my lack of superstition, I sure did—but only because that was the special of the day at Lulu’s/Dan River Restaurant!
Black-eyed peas supposedly represent pennies which would have been more desirable for our ancestors than they are to us. These little brown legumes were brought to our country from Africa during the slave trade. They became a staple of the slave diet.
When the Union soldiers raided the Southern countryside during the Civil War, they often left the black-eyed peas in the fields because they deemed them mere livestock feed. Therefore, black-eyed peas became a major factor for survival in the Civil War South. One can see how they became even more associated with good luck.
So why now are black-eyed peas known in regions other than the South as a good luck food for New Year’s Day? Well, we owe that debt to an East Texas man named Elmore Torn, father of actor Rip Torn and uncle of Sissy Spacek. An agriculturist and business promoter, he became a national spokesman for the black-eyed pea starting in 1937—even hosting “Black-eyed Pea Parties” for legislators in Washington, D.C., and sending the peas to people such as Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and songstress Kate Smith.
Within five years, sales of black-eyed peas had doubled. With people such as President Roosevelt and Kate Smith talking about eating their “lucky black-eyed peas” on national radio, the traditionally-Southern concept spread from coast to coast.
With regard to the other customary New Year’s Day foods, cornbread is supposed to represent wealth by way of its golden color. Eating pork also represented abundance since hog-killing time in the fall was a time of rejoicing in all the fresh meat that would be put away for winter. Greens obviously represent the color of money—something most people hope will be plentiful in their coming year.
(If I believed all of this were true, I would certainly be eating more greens than black-eyed peas. Who wants pennies when you can have greenbacks?)
Although collard, mustard and turnip greens are the most popular greens for the traditional meal, in other parts of the nation, cabbage is also used. My friend Wende Powell Thomas says that her mother, who is from southeastern Ohio, insists on cooking a penny in cabbage on New Year’s Day to make one “healthy, wealthy and wise.” Wende’s family tradition goes back at least to her great-grandmother Stewart.
Daddy and Mama told me of friends who will not do laundry on New Year’s Day lest they wash a loved one out of their lives in the coming year. My
hubster’s cousin, Angie Bowden Cockman, says their Granny Bowden specified that this loved one was a family member. My friend Monnie Tuttle Johnson tells me that her mother phrased it this way: If you washed clothes on New Year’s Day, you’d be washing a dead person’s clothes before the New Year ended. Two other friends of mine insisted that indeed they refuse to wash clothes on New Year’s Day.
My buddy Edward Hatcher has heard that a male has to come to your door first on New Year’s Day or it’s bad luck. If a woman is the first, dishwater must be thrown in her face. (What on earth is that saying about us women?!) My friend Phyllis Hairston recalls that her dad, in reference to that tradition, would make sure to come to her house early every single New Year’s morning.
I have learned of so many New Year’s traditions that I will have to save some of them for another column—perhaps late next December, if God blesses us with another year. I would be much obliged to hear other such superstitions if you would so kind as to share them with me. We may think we are living in the modern age, but as each New Year’s Eve/Day rolls around, I find that we are not as far from the old paths as we may believe.
Leslie Bray Brewer can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her blog is at http://timesofrefreshingontheoldpaths.wordpress.com.