There are many food traditions, particularly associated with the holidays. My family has its traditions, many of which are based on our parental roots in Europe. This year I've been asking friends and family about their food traditions and if they know what they represent or the origin of the tradition. My informal survey has yielded the following three most common responses. 1) family ancestry 2) "I thought everybody did it" and 3) no idea where/when/how it got started. I was most surprised by the second response, in that many people believe everyone else has the same food traditions as are practiced by their own families.
I discussed the Christmas Eve meal with our housekeeper, Margaret, who was raised in Poland. I found their traditions to be very closely aligned with those of my family, who are of southern Italian descent. It seems that the long tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve dates from the medieval Roman Catholic tradition of abstinence/penitents — in this case, refraining from the consumption of meat or milk products. Observant Catholics would instead eat fish, typically fried in oil. Being that most of Poland and Italy are Catholic, seafood seems to be the popular dish on Christmas Eve.
It is tradition that the Italians (and their Italian-American counterparts) have dinner on Christmas Eve with seven different fish dishes. Some people I talked with thought that the number seven represented 1) days of the week, 2) the sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church, and 3) perfection (the traditional Biblical number for divinity is three, and for Earth is four, and the combination of these numbers, seven, represents God on Earth, or Jesus Christ). Other offered theories including three fish dishes representing the three Wise Men or the Holy Trinity while yet others suggested that their family had thirteen dishes, one for each of the apostles plus one for Jesus. However, a little research shows that most traditions come from the observance of the Cena della Vigilia, the wait for the birth of Jesus in which early Christians Catholics fasted until after receiving communion at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. In later years it became a penitential day, meaning that all foods except meat were allowed and fasting was no longer required, and the meal was moved to before the mass for practical reasons.
Margaret says that in Poland they always had 12 types of fish, representing the 12 apostles. In Poland, the traditional Christmas meal is known as Wigilia ("Vigil"), and being invited to attend a Wigilia dinner with a family is considered a great honor. Before eating everyone exchanges Christmas greetings with each other by giving a piece of Christmas wafer (Opłatki), stamped with a religious image. Margaret says everyone has to try each dish to avoid bad luck next year. After dinner, children open presents from under the Christmas tree. Later people attend midnight mass.
The most famous dish Southern Italians are known for is Baccalà (salted cod fish). Reasons for celebrating with such a simple fish as Baccalà is attributed to the greatly impoverished regions of Southern Italy. In Poland it is carp, which I'm told bares little resemblance to the American carp. Fried smelts, calamari, lobster, oysters, scallops and most other types of seafood have been incorporated into the Christmas Eve dinner over the years, particularly here in America. Some families have a very strict menu of what must be served, while others vary the menu annually.
Like Christmas, New Year's Day also has its food traditions. Our family had a firm rule that on New Year's Day you must eat pork roast with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. This tradition comes less from our Italian roots and more from where we grew up, in the Ohio valley where people were often said to be "Pennsylvania Dutch", generally meaning that they had been German immigrants from prior to the 1800's. Our family intermarried with many of these German descendants and it became a tradition that we had this meal to bring good luck in the New Year.
From my many conversations on this topic, it appears that there are a variety of foods that are believed to be lucky. Traditions vary from culture to culture, but there are striking similarities in what's consumed in different parts of the world to ensure you have good fortune. The major categories of 'good luck foods' are grapes, greens, fish, legumes, cakes and as noted, pork.
The custom of eating pork on New Year's is based on the idea that pigs symbolize progress. The animal pushes forward, rooting in the ground before moving ahead. Pigs are also associated with plumpness and getting plenty to eat. In Europe many years ago, wild boars were caught in the forests and killed on the first day of the year. Roast suckling pig is served for New Year's in Cuba, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Austria and many other places. Austrians are also known to decorate the table with miniature pigs made of marzipan. Different pork dishes are enjoyed in Sweden, while Germans, Italians and Americans feast on roast pork or ham, and sometimes sausages/hot dogs, all of which are cooked in the sauerkraut.
I'm told that Bolivians and some people in New Orleans have turkey for their lucky meal. But other people claim that eating fowl on New Year's Day will result in bad luck. (Fowl scratch backward as they search for their food, and who wants to have to "scratch for a living"?) People in the northwestern part of the United States eat salmon to get lucky. Some Germans and Poles choose herring instead of pork, which is often served in a cream sauce. In Greece a special lemon-flavored cake is made with a coin baked inside to celebrate Saint Basil's Day and New Year's at the same time. In Brazil, lentils are a symbol of prosperity, so lentil soup or lentils with rice is prepared for the first meal of the New Year. In Portugal and Spain as the clock strikes midnight and the new year begins, people eat twelve grapes to bring them luck for all twelve months of the coming year. Finally, in Japan they observe their New Year's tradition of eating a noodle called toshikoshi soba. This noodle is quite long, and those who can swallow at least one of them without chewing or breaking it are supposed to enjoy good luck and a long life.
This year as we host guests for the New Year's Day dinner, I'll be preparing the traditional 'lucky' pork roast with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. A simple, but for me a very satisfying meal. What are your holiday food traditions? Whatever they are, I hope you enjoy them and that they bring you and yours the best of luck in the New Year!