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They are stockpiling black-eyed peas in Charleston, South Carolina. Grapes are being neatly organized into dozens in Spain and in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, they’re warming up the goatskin drums in Nassau in the Bahamas. As clocks circle toward 2015, rituals all over the world promise prosperity and good fortune for the New Year.
If you’re celebrating the New Year in the American South, somewhere on the table there will be a dish of black-eyed peas and rice. Nowhere is this more assured than in Charleston. The Holy City, as it’s known to natives, and the nearby Lowcountry are home to Hoppin’ John, the black-eyed pea and rice purloo that is the classic Southern New Year’s dish. A totemic stew with its roots firmly planted in West Africa, Hoppin’ John is consumed for luck, the legumes representing coins.
Kit Bennett, a co-owner of Lotus Flower Florists in Charleston can attest to that. “ My family’s been here since dirt,” she says, “and I must have Hoppin” John every New Year’s Day.”
And if she didn’t?
“I don’t know what would happen if I didn’t eat Hoppin’ John, but I’m certainly not going to tempt fate!” she replies.
If prosperity begins with black-eyed peas for many of the residents of the American South, in the Hispanic world, it’s all about grapes — 12 of them. Neatly snipped of their stems and placed in crystal ramekins or gobbled down hurriedly, they are eaten as the clock strikes 12 (one for each stroke) to ensure good fortune in the incoming year.
Chef and artist Patricia L. Wilson is based in Miami but grew up in Puerto Rico, where purple grapes are put into a bag and eaten on the 12 strokes of midnight. She also remembers that the day before the holiday was a time to give the home a thorough cleaning.
“We also filled a pail with water that was tossed out of the front door at midnight to take away all of the bad stuff from the old year,” she says.
Grapes also feature in the festivities in Rio de Janeiro. There they are among the presents that are given to Iemanjá (sometimes spelled Yemanjá), the Yoruba orisha, or goddess, who is venerated by the city on that day.
Gersoney Azevedo, the senior humanitarian affairs adviser for the U.N. in Bangladesh, grew up in the Bahia province of Brazil. Lately he’s been getting nostalgic, he says, thinking of the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Rio de Janeiro.
“I have fond memories as a child struggling to be awake until midnight, waiting to watch fireworks at Copacabana beach on television,” he says.
Glenn Tunstull, a New York–based artist who visits Rio annually, describes a day of preparations for the New Year, with Bahianas placing food, candles, flowers and drinks in the sand at the beach.
“As the sun begins to set, the locals pour out of the buildings en masse, all dressed in white, carrying flowers and grapes and Champagne, all marching in unison toward the ocean,” he writes in an email, describing the world-famous gathering of some 2 million people on the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema.
“Everything from bouquets to boats of flowers are launched in the hope of a better New Year,” he adds, and at midnight fireworks are shot from every direction for almost an hour.
In Scotland, the land of “Auld Lang Syne,” fireworks are also central to the public celebrations in Edinburgh and Glasgow, but the importance of the holiday is found in individual homes for Don Sloan, head of the Oxford School of Hospitality at Oxford/Brookes University in England and a self-proclaimed member of the Scottish diaspora.
“As a child, the excitement of people arriving at midnight was overwhelming,’ he writes in an email, noting that his family is from Ayrshire, the home of Robert Burns, the poet who is credited with the lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne” (“for old times’ sake”), set to a traditional Scottish tune. “So we always felt a sense of ownership over ‘Auld Lang Syne.’”
In Scottish, the name for the last day of the year is Hogmanay. “That Scottish sense of the common weal, the common sense of community being better than the individual, is focused on that moment at midnight on Hogmanay,” he writes. “That’s why we cry so much and why we love others.”
Immediately after midnight, the practice of first footing begins in Scotland. Ideally, the first person to enter a home in the New Year should be a tall, dark stranger bearing symbolic gifts of coal, shortbread, black bun (a dark fruitcake) and the whiskey that lubricates much of the celebration.
After midnight, when the festivities are winding down in some parts of the world, the goatskin drums are warming up in Nassau, where the Junkanoo festivities begin right after midnight on New Year’s Day. Junkanoo harks back to the days of enslavement, when the Christmas holidays offered a brief respite from agricultural and domestic toils. Nassau is the center of Junkanoo, with elaborately costumed dance troupes parading down Bay Street and through the streets of the capital, accompanied by the distinctive sound of goatskin drums, horns and cowbells.
Roberta Garzaroli has witnessed the growth of the Junkanoo tradition, since her family owns Graycliff, one of Nassau’s pre-eminent restaurants. Although she is now a marketing executive in New York, she remembers a smaller celebration with friendly rivalry among the parading groups.
“Now it’s huge, with some troupes numbering more than a thousand members,” she says. "The parades, which used to last for only a few hours, now go from just after midnight until noon or beyond. The energy is amazing. The music is fantastic, and the spirit of the holiday is contagious.”
New Year’s does not always mean Jan. 1. In many parts of the world, traditional and religious New Year’s celebrations are held on other dates.The Chinese celebrate the Lunar New Year, which will be Feb. 19 in 2015. Senegal’s Tamxarit and Bengal’s Naba Brasha are two such holidays.
Tamxarit, the product of a particularly Senegalese form of Islam, is Senegal’s celebration of the Muslim New Year, with a variable date. One explanation of the holiday suggests that on that day Abdou Jambar, the angel of death, is abroad looking for souls. Children are told to eat a lot so they will be too heavy to carry away. Disguises, which involve cross-dressing, are about tricking Abdou Jambar. Food plays a large role, with a millet couscous, thiere, the culinary centerpiece of the holiday; huge bowls of it are shared among families and friends. At the end of the meal, everyone makes wishes on the overturned bowl, for Tamxarit is the day on which all prayers are answered.
Pierre Thiam, a Senegalese chef based in New York, remembers that Tamxarit “is the children’s holiday in Senegal. They go from door to door disguised in costumes and are given sweets and money, a bit like Halloween."
When most folks think of year-end festivals in India, they think of Diwali. But for Sikha Dalal, a retired New York City educator, who harks from Kolkata, the capital of the state of West Bengali, year-end festivities are about Naba Barsha, Bengali New Year, usually celebrated in mid-April.
Those who can afford it get new clothes, often the traditional Bengali saris of white with a red border, she says. They go to temple or pray to whatever god they have in the house. Younger folks go to touch the feet of their elders in sign of respect and receive blessings. Homes are at times decorated with rangolis, elaborate designs drawn with rice flour paste, for prosperity.
And for children, it’s all about the sweets: special fruit pancakes filled with sweet jelly, traditional Indian sweets such as rasgulla (cheese balls in sugar syrup), sandesh (a milk-based sweet) and gulab jamun (boiled-down milk with sugar syrup).
Dalal celebrates Naba Barsha with family in New York, but that doesn’t keep her from dipping into other customs. Her son-in-law, for instance, is from the American South. And so on New Year’s morning, she’ll be eating Hoppin’ John.
“I love Hoppin’ John,” she says. “I could eat it until I burst!”