Growing up in North Carolina, there were New Year’s Day traditions that Barbara Ladd looked forward to, especially a satisfying meal of black-eyed peas and turnip greens.
Peas for luck, greens for money. It seemed like every Southerner she knew did that.
But there was one tradition her uncle observed every New Year’s morning that galled Ladd to no end.
The uncle, who lived in Nashville, N.C., got up extra early to visit all of the widows in town, at least as many as he could. The belief in that part of eastern North Carolina was that a man should be the first person to walk into a home on the first day of the year. If a woman or girl crossed the threshold first, the occupants would have bad luck the rest of the year.
“I was a very strong feminist and I thought it was the most sexist thing I had heard of in my life,” said Ladd, now an English professor at Emory University. “I just glowered. And I’m still not crazy about it.”
First footing, black-eyed peas and collard greens, firing a shotgun toward the heavens in the seconds after the clock strikes midnight on Jan. 1.
Whether you call them beliefs, customs, practices (but please not superstitions, folklorists say), there are some New Year’s traditions people wouldn’t dream of breaking. Depending on your threshold for rituals, some might seem sexist, whimsical or just down right peculiar. Many have endured for centuries, morphing and changing from culture to culture. But those little rituals we perform to usher in the New Year, from singing “Auld Lang Syne” to blowing noise makers, say a lot about our hopes and desires for the next 365 days.
Right around sunset on New Year’s Eve, the phone always rang in Mickey Montevideo’s childhood home in Athens. It was her grandmother calling from Texas to ask if Mickey or anyone else in the family had put a penny on the window sill by the front door. Montevideo’s mother had, of course, not forgotten. She’d given everyone in the family a shiny, new penny for the task.
The penny was supposed to beckon prosperity to the house.
Now a spokeswoman for the University of Georgia, Montevideo still puts out a penny, as does her own family. So how effective is it in lining their pockets?
“It didn’t work,” she said. “But I wouldn’t go a year without doing it. I’m rich in life if not rich in my pocketbook.”
That penny tradition could also symbolize luck, said Emily Kader, a visiting assistant professor of English at Emory. Kader is also a specialist in folklore, having studied the ties between Irish, Caribbean and African-American folk tales through the centuries.
What she learned was that in the 1600s, as Irish immigrants came to the Caribbean to work as indentured servants, their lives and thus their stories became intertwined with those of the enslaved Africans who also worked the land and had their own traditions. She also studied the ties between Appalachian and Irish folk tales, as well as those of the Gullah, the descendants of slaves who lived for centuries in the islands off the South Carolina coast. Again, there were common themes and tales.
The origins of the penny tradition are unclear. But the origins aren’t as important as how they are interpreted in the present day, Kader said.
“We all have our own associations and interpretations because that keeps it a living tradition,” said Kader. “We associate them with specific memories, feelings, family and community connections that are vitally important to us.”
Thus a penny, which many of us have tossed along with a silent wish into a fountain, also becomes a symbol of luck as well as money. By placing it near an entry point, we’re essentially rolling out the welcome mat for the good times to roll right in, said Kader.
Noise in the air
If there was one thing Marietta resident Henry Starr counted on as a child in North Carolina, it was firing his grandfather’s shotgun right after the clock ticked 12 on New Year’s Day. He and the other kids in the family stepped out past the porch and watched their grandfather fire into the night sky. Then he let Starr and the other children take a turn firing the gun, too. Others on nearby farms did the same thing and the darkness would pulse with celebratory shots.
“You’re celebrating that you made it into another year,” Starr said.
But some interpret the action as a way of warding of bad luck or bad energy that may approach. It’s the same idea behind banging pots outside the front door right after midnight.
To this day, Starr said, he keeps up with his childhood traditions. At 66, why stop?
All of this reaching for talismans might strike some as silly. Some wouldn’t dream of practicing any of the “old ways,” or be bound by the culture.
But even opting out is, in its own way, an attempt to shape one’s future, said Elissa Henken, a professor and folklorist who teaches in the English department at the University of Georgia.
“A lot of our belief customs have to do with uncertainty in our lives and we look to anything that gives us some control or allows us to have our say,” Henken said.
“Whatever you do on the first day sets up the pattern for the rest of they year.”
It’s the same principle behind resolutions, Henken said, the desire to start fresh and head in a positive direction. And sometimes religion or faith, not just culture, dictate the rules of welcoming a new year.
“It’s like having honey and apples at Rosh Hashanah,” Henken said. “You’re wishing a sweet year ahead.”
Like Kader, Henken believes the origins of these Jan. 1 rituals aren’t as important. She thinks it’s impossible to pinpoint most of them. What is more important, however, is that people actually continue their practice, because it is in the practice that people find meaning and community, she said.
“When you put up a Christmas tree, do you really need to know what pre-Christian Germans did with greenery in their home that led to the Christmas tree as it’s known now?” Henken said. “The way it functions for you is not dependent upon how it started. We do these things because they matter to us and satisfy us in some way.”
And besides, Henken said, “once it’s in your head, the pull is too strong not to.”