In most of Asia, especially China, Korea, and Vietnam, the New Year begins with the first full moon of the first Chinese lunar month. Special foods are eaten in each region. In China, foods are prepared ahead (using a knife during New Year’s might “cut luck”) and include dishes with names that sound auspicious, such as tangerines (good fortune), fish (surplus), and chestnuts (profit). Meats, fried dishes (such as fried rice dumplings), and alcoholic beverages (which are all considered yang, or strong foods) are also common. In Korea, soup containing small glutinous rice cakes or steamed dumplings are a must. In Vietnam, bahn chung, a glutinous rice cake filled with meat and beans cooked in banana leaves is a New Year’s specialty. Pork with lotus root and shark fin soup are also favored. Small mandarin trees in full fruit are purchased for each home as a sign of hospitality.
One tradition practiced in both China and Vietnam has to do with the annual report on the family’s past activities to the gods, who then determine the following year’s fortune. In Chinese culture, an offering is made a week before the New Year to the picture of the Chinese Kitchen God hung in most homes. The food is usually sweet and sticky, so that when the God departs to Heaven to make his report, he will only say favorable things (in some regions the lips in the picture are actually smeared with honey or malt). In Vietnam, it is Ong Tao (Spirit of the Hearth), he is represented by 3 small stones and honored at his altar with a sweet soy bean soup and sweet rice cakes.
The beginning of the New Year is celebrated by many cultures on January 1st. Some celebrations, such as in the U.S., take place on the evening before the new year, featuring drinking, sweets, and general frivolity. In Spain and Portugal, it is customary to eat twelve grapes or raisins at each stroke of the clock at midnight (a similar practice takes place in the Philippines following the New Year’s Eve fiesta meal, but only 7 grapes are eaten). In Poland, jelly doughnuts (paczki)are traditional of New Year’s Eve. In Scotland, New Year’s Eve is called Hogmanay complete with festive partying and foods such as triangular shortbread (calle hogmanays), scones, bannocks, black bun, ginger bread, and haggis, a pudding made from sheep’s stomach stuffed with oatmeal and innards is drenched in Scotch whiskey before it is eaten.
In Japan on New Year’s day, 10 to 20 dishes, collectively called Osechi ryori, are served. Each dish represents a different value desired for the new year, such as fish eggs for fertility, root vegetables for stability, black beans for health, kombu (seaweed) for happiness, and mashed sweet potatoes to keep away the evil spirits. Otoso, a special rice wine, is served. In many homes, mochi, a rice cake made by pounding hot rice into a sticky dough is traditional. A Buddhist o sonae mochi may be set up to preserve good luck and happiness in future generations. It consists of a large mochi on the bottom, which is the foundation provided by the older generation. A smaller mochi representing the younger generation is placed on top, followed by a tangerine symbolizing the generations to come.
In Greece, a sweet bread called vasilopitta is prepared with a coin baked into it for New Year’s. The person who gets the piece with the coin in has good luck in the upcoming year. In the U.S. South, black-eyed peas (sometimes known as hoppin’ johns) are traditionally served for luck on New Year’s day. Throughout much of the world, the beginning of the new year is seen as an opportunity to celebrate life and influence the future!