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Good luck traditions are matter of geography
Raleigh News & Observer


December 31, 2006

While native Southerners rely on collards and black-eyed peas to bring them good luck for the new year, these regional dishes are for many an acquired taste.

There are other options. We checked on New Year's traditions in other countries and found several edible sources of good luck.

In some nations, sweets rule on New Year's Day. The Dutch believe that a ring symbolizes eternity, so they eat doughnuts for luck in the new year. Germans give marzipan pigs for good luck at Christmas and New Year's.

Other cultures enjoy playing a little hide and seek with their food for luck. The Norwegians make a rice pudding and hide one whole almond inside. The person who gets the scoop with the almond also gets the luck for the new year. (Technically, this is a Christmas Eve tradition, our local Scandinavian sources tell us, but we won't tell if you don't.)

The Greeks have a similar tradition with their Vassilopita, also known as St. Basil's Cake. According to legend, an overzealous tax collector rounded up valuables from Greek citizens, then decided not to take them. St. Basil slipped the items into breads and cakes that the citizens made. Miraculously, when he distributed the baked goods, the valuables ended up in the hands of the rightful owners.

New Year's Day is the feast day of St. Basil, and while each region of Greece has its own customs, serving the semi-sweet St. Basil's Cake is nearly universal for Greeks, says Bill Bakis, owner of Nikos Taverna in Cary.

The traditional Vassilopita is more like bread than cake, but Greeks in other countries cook a cakelike variation. A coin, wrapped in foil, is baked inside, and the person who gets the slice with the coin is guaranteed good luck and prosperity for the new year.

Some follow a special ritual for serving Vassilopita at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, according to Caterina Pizanias, writing for

The cake is carefully cut in a specific order, with the first slice for Christ, the second for the Virgin Mary, the third for the host's house, the next for the poor and the rest for the people at the table.

Other countries have stroke-of-midnight food traditions, too. (You may have to forgo the American midnight kiss tradition to follow these.)

One of the best known is the Spanish and Mexican tradition of eating a whole grape for each of the 12 strokes of midnight, says chef Ricardo Quintero of Jibarra restaurant in Raleigh. Each grape symbolizes good luck for each month of the new year.

Another New Year's Eve tradition in Mexico is eating lentil soup. "Lentils are good luck," Quintero says.

Lentils are also good luck for Sicilians, says Nina Psarros, chef-owner of Nina's in North Raleigh, N.C.

"You have to eat lentil soup at 12 o'clock on New Year's Eve," says Psarros, who sends out the soup to her restaurant patrons on the holiday. "Everyone must have at least one spoonful. It means good luck, good health and prosperity."

Asked about a widely reported custom of eating lasagna for New Year's in Sicily, the Palermo native was baffled. "I never really heard that. That's weird," she says.

However, on New Year's Day, she often does serve a lasagna-like dish called pastitsio, a baked meat and pasta casserole in honor of the Greek heritage of her husband, Chris Psarros. And she also usually has a St. Basil's Cake.

"Tradition is so important to families," she says. "Tradition is what keeps families together."

So this year, try out a new good luck tradition. You have plenty of options, both sweet and savory.

Just be careful with the grapes. No one wants to start the new year with the Heimlich maneuver.


Susan Houston can be reached at shouston(at)
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Scripps Howard News Service,

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