From Watch Night to New Years Day: Family Traditions, Tales and Togetherness
New Years Day is a forward looking event. During weeks building up to New Year’s Eve, we take time to assess what our year was like. Did we accomplish goals set in 2010. Did we lose that weight, kick that guy to the curb, sign up for some classes to make that career more or what did we do? By New Years Day we are optimistic. We feel empowered to have a better year spiritually, economically, socially and or relationship wise. Once we have made our 2012 Resolution, we can settle down to some traditional eating. Most of us have hear the orators or elder storytellers share the significance of that special New Years Day Feast. What’s behind those Black Eyed Peas, Collard Green, Chitlins, Pigs Feet, Hog Head, Corn Bread, Yams, Rice, cake and pies? The menu might vary from household to household, but you could find many of these foods on most African American New Years Day table.
These foods on the first day of the New Year were stressed as good luck food. Family members were encouraged to eat all their food to ensure that good luck for the coming year. Additionally, your behavior on the first day of the year, set the tone for the year. My parents made sure we had money in our pockets, and most of all no arguments. Moreover, parents in the neighborhood tried to settle debts, misunderstanding with family and others people they had apt with during the past, and giving back borrowed items. They took great pain to do a thorough house cleaning. Again, “sweep out the past and make room for the future.” My mom would always hang Mistletoe over the door post for good luck. A significant tradition was for a man to be the first to enter your house on New Year’s Day. Often times, one or two men would rise early and visit the homes in the neighborhood. It was tradition for them to sit a while to enjoy a cup of coffee, eat a little breakfast, or some food item before going to the next house.
Food Symbolism: Many of these traditions go back to slavery. During this time period, the slaves did not have much in the way of money but a treasure of family value and togetherness, and a belief that things would get better with God’s help. The slaves were sustained by looking forward to the New Year by ending the old year with respect and beginning the new one in the way we would like it to begin, we declare our intentions for the New Year!
Black-eyed Peas: the tradition of eating black-eyed represented money, mainly pennies. Eating black-eyed peas meant you would have money during the coming year.
Pig's Feet, Chitlin, and Hog Head: The slaves were given the remnants of the pig during hog killing time; the part that the master did not want. The slaves being creative in their cooking learned to fix the left over meats and the tradition was passed down to the present day. The hog head was significant “to eating high on the hog.”
Collard Greens: Any greens such as collards, cabbage, turnips, etc. were great. The greens indicated paper money. Everyone looked forward to more dollars in their pockets during the coming year. Eating all your greens was double insurance to having more money in your pockets.
Cornbread: Cornbread was a symbol of gold. Another hope of prosperity for the family.
Rice: Rice symbolized fertility. This is important for family expansion and that the race would continue.
Cake and Pies: No meal was complete without the deserts. From slavery until the present day, families look forward to a sweet and glorious New Year.
New Year’s Day for descendants of slave’s holds special significant. On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves from bondage, was read in Boston.
President Abraham Lincoln announced that the Emancipation Proclamation would take effect Jan. 1, thus the slaves reportedly gathered together on what was called "Freedom's Eve" to await and watch what the New Year would bring. This act would eventually become known as Watch Night.
Today, many African-American families participate in “watch services” where there is prayer, praise and passion for the prospect of a wonderful New Year. Then on January 1, there is wide celebration with the traditional family dinner.
Happy 2012, Family, Friends and Country!