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Celebrating New Year with age-old traditions

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Among many Southern (US folks) as well as African-Americans, there are some very tried-and-true News Year Day superstitions traditions.  And me being a lover of cultural rituals, I look forward to them – even if I don’t always follow through.

1. First visitor to cross your threshold must be a man. I heard a lot of explanations for this, but the only written account I came across was a supposed slave narrative. Slaves were given ‘time off’ from December 26 – December 31. Families would visit friends and relations at nearby plantations. It was a jubilant time – sharing news, and hugs and kisses.  And it is supposed to be the origin of the Watch Night Church service. Since slaves had to return to work by the morning January 1, they would stay up all night worshipping, singing hymns. Just before dawn the men would visit ladies one last time to give them luck for the year.

2. Must eat greens and black eyed peas on New Years Day.  This is so common now that I think it has become officially mainstream. Southern Blacks and Whites (who despite years of social and economic segregation have SO much in common culturally when it comes to food) would look at you with side eye if dared reject at least a forkful of each. I was told eating each would bring good luck, namely financial prosperity. I’ve had an up-and-down relationship with both of these foods. I ate them as a kid, but didn’t really like either. During my teens I despised both. Now as a adult, I love both. If cooked properly, (and with corn bread), then watch out.

Black eyed peas with hammocks

3. Unpleasant pork products must be consumed, namely chitlins chitterlings or hog-head cheese. I am sure you can tell I am biased.  I grew up eating pork, but was never a fan of the less-than-choice parts like pig feet, snoots, and organ meats.  As one friend said, “That is slave food and that tradition dies with my parents.” Yeah, many of us in the younger generations don’t appreciate the taste of chitlins.

Thanks to Mrs. Boyd for letting me document the chitlin preparation.

I was never a fan of them. They stunk up the house to high-heaven.  When I was told that they are pig’s intenstines, I was immediately turned off.  But the ceremony of the chitlin preparation is very familiar (and heart-warming to me). My maternal grandmother would thaw out a 10 pound red bucket of chitlins then wash, pick thru, rinse and repeat several times.

Rich in calories, these foods took a long time to prepare so there were often presented for special occasions only, like the holidays.

I tried chitlins only once. They reminded me of a pile of wet rubberbands in color and texture. Even with hotsauce, I couldn’t enjoy them.

But chitlins are a very important food item.  If you enjoy sausages in natural casing then that’s chitlins, but not just from pigs – sheep, goat and cattle intestines linings have served as sausage casing for many centuries. And lambskin condoms are made from sheep ‘chitlins’. Ain’t that something?

Have a safe, happy, prosperous, and savory new year!


DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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  1. 1. bsebadger 3:51 pm 01/4/2013

    A nice, light read for a Friday afternoon, but there are a couple of things that irk me about this article:

    Please, save us from the use of ‘thru’ rather than ‘through’… we have debauched the English language enough.

    In your first point, the spelling is ‘jubilant’, rather than ‘jubilent’. This was probably the more irksome of the two.

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  2. 2. brynnscott 4:03 pm 01/4/2013

    #1 May have roots in Scottish Hogmanay traditions.

    There are many customs, both national and local, associated with Hogmanay. The most widespread national custom is the practice of first-footing, which starts immediately after midnight. This involves being the first person to cross the threshold of a friend or neighbour and often involves the giving of symbolic gifts such as salt (less common today), coal, shortbread, whisky, and black bun (a rich fruit cake) intended to bring different kinds of luck to the householder. Food and drink (as the gifts) are then given to the guests. This may go on throughout the early hours of the morning and well into the next day (although modern days see people visiting houses well into the middle of January). The first-foot is supposed to set the luck for the rest of the year. Traditionally, tall dark men are preferred as the first-foot. (from Wikipedia)

    2&3) Being Northern PA and Scotts-German, my family’s traditional food is Sauerkraut and Pork {shudder}. And as a Scott, let’s not forget the Haggis.

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  3. 3. DNLee 3:32 pm 01/7/2013

    Typos corrected! Thank you for visiting and happy productive new year!

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