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11 Black New Year's Eve traditions that COVID-19 can't cancel

From eating Hoppin' John to watching Freedom's Eve services, these African American traditions all about inviting luck into the new year.
These New Year’s Eve traditions, like many from other cultures, were developed to encourage hope, luck and generosity in the new year.
These New Year’s Eve traditions, like many from other cultures, were developed to encourage hope, luck and generosity in the new year.Daniel Fishel / For TODAY
/ Source: TMRW

This year has been tough, to put it mildly. People are out of work, evictions are rising and you can get yelled at for asking someone to wear a mask in your establishment. Parties are canceled, bars are canceled and going out to eat inside a restaurant safely is canceled. Yes, 2020 has been darn exhausting. It is time for a new year little bit of good luck.

Members of the African diaspora hold superstitions and beliefs that both predate colonialism and were developed during slavery. Many of these practices focus on improving one’s luck, setting intentions and becoming closer to loved ones. Thanks to the somber and introspective approach of these practices, many can be done alone, with members of your household or even over a Zoom call. So whether you are looking for safe ways to celebrate the end of this crazy year or just want a little bit of history on the traditions you grew up doing, here are 11 Black New Year’s Eve traditions to help turn 2020’s luck around.

1. Hoppin' John

This dish of garlicky, herby black-eyed peas with pork is an African American staple for New Year's Eve.

There are many stories about how the bean came to be so important to African American culture, which dates back to slavery often in the South, where it was discovered that black-eyed peas grow easily in muggy weather. When slaves would gain their freedom, they would take dried beans with them since they could be planted in many places and still flourish. And so the black-eyed pea is associated with good luck, new beginnings and even wisdom. The dish often calls for celery and bell peppers, while my family likes to add hot peppers. The running joke is that the spice will “wake us up” to a new dawn.

2. Collard greens or cabbage

Collard greens and cabbage are considered good luck. Because of their green color and the way they lay on a plate when cooked, collard greens have come to represent “folded money” since when you have a lot of bills, you often fold them to keep them compact and neat. Eating collard greens is said to bring prosperity to the eater in the new year and are often eaten with the Hoppin' John.

3. Cornbread

Eating delicious, warm cornbread is a sure way to improve any mood. On New Year’s Eve, this soul food staple is supposed to bring riches into your life, specifically disposable income. The association likely comes from cornbread’s golden color.

4. Eating pork

Many times in our nation’s cultural history, African Americans have been left with undesirable plants, seeds and parts of meat. We’ve had to make meals out of what was considered “livestock food” and feed them to our families. The tradition of preparing pig feet, fatback and chitlins developed from this necessity and duly became a part of Black New Year's Eve traditions.

Pork not only adds amazing flavor to dishes like Hoppin' John or collard greens, but also has some symbolism. As some have noted, pigs root forward in the mud versus chickens and turkeys who scratch their feet backward. For this reason, pigs have come to symbolize progress. Some Dutch American families also eat pork on New Year’s Eve for similar reasons, but they often pair it with sauerkraut.

5. Soup joumou

Eating soup joumou or "freedom soup" is a Haitian tradition that is said to have started in 1804 after Haiti gained its freedom. The French often enjoyed soupe de potiron, a creamy pumpkin-based soup blended with beef. Slaves were forbidden from enjoying it, even though many times they were the very ones preparing the dish. Haiti gained its independence from France on Jan. 1, 1804, and eating Soup Joumou became a symbol of liberation, pride and freedom.

Soup Joumou

6. Deep cleaning the house on New Year's Eve

This practice has roots in Vodou. On New Year's Eve, the dwellers of the house need to clean, scrub and sweep the entire house and then throw the dirt away and outside. This is related to the belief that energies can be altered and moved from one place to another with the right actions and intentions. Sweeping represents removing the stale energy from the previous year that will no longer serve us in the new year, and making room for new blessings and growth.

7. Not leaving the house on the first day of the year

Another reason it’s a good idea to clean your house on New Year's Eve is the tradition of not being allowed to remove a single thing from your house on New Year's Day. For 24 hours, every bit of trash or dirt has to stay put. Some families will even hide their cleaning tools away for the day to avoid any mishaps. Similarly from the deep cleaning from the day before, throwing anything out on New Year's Day means risking throwing away any good luck or energy the new year might have given you when the clock struck midnight.

8. Opening all your windows

This practice follows the same idea as sweeping. Old, stale energy moves out of your house, taking old year air with it. Fresh, new air is ushered in it. This is also a way to passively allow the new year’s energy to take hold in your dwelling wherever it needs to go.

9. Making sure your cupboard is full

The idea here is that you need the start the new year the same way that you want to go through it. This action is supposed to be preventative. Starting the new year with an empty cupboard could mean that your cupboard will stay barren all year. This is about intentional energy and steering the energy of the new year into the parts of your life where you need it.

10. Making sure the person who crosses your threshold after midnight is the right person

There are many versions of this tradition. I’ve had single friends ask a member of their attracted gender to cross their threshold after midnight. I heard of hopeful couples directing a child they know through the front door (if the kids are still awake) to encourage fertility. Some people don’t like to interfere with fate at all, allowing the new year to bring through their front door whoever is supposed to be there. Whoever walks through the door on New Year's Day and however they get there, they need to have some money in their pocket to, once again, bring monetary growth and prosperity to the dwellers of the house.

11. Going to church for a watch night or Freedom’s Eve service

The tradition of the Watch Night service probably dates back to the 18th century with the Moravian church, where members would get together on New Year's Eve to reflect on the old year and look forward to the new one. It is said that African Americans adopted this practice starting on Dec. 31, 1862, when many enslaved Black people stayed up all night in anticipation of President Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation. On New Year's Day, they were legally free.

These services usually start around 10 p.m. and end around midnight. They are filled with reflection, prayer and making intentions for the new year.

Black New Year's Eve traditions, like many other cultures, were developed to encourage hope, luck and generosity in the new year. I hope that this list brings you a little bit of history and a stroke of good luck!