6 Families Share Their Most Meaningful New Year’s Food Traditions

published Dec 23, 2021
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Flaky golden croissants resting on a parchment baking sheet

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Five years ago, my daughter and I founded a new tradition: “baking in” the new year. Our grand plan includes timing our bake such that it emerges from the oven at the stroke of midnight. (We aren’t always successful in this regard; bread, especially, can be temperamental.) The baked treat then becomes breakfast on January 1. It’s a ritual steeped in togetherness and warmth — literally! — and bounty. In years passed, we’ve made cinnamon raisin bread (2016) and milk bread (2018) and croissants (2020). This year, we’ll be making a rich, buttery brioche loaf, perhaps seasoned with herbs, to be served with eggs the following morning. 

Food traditions to mark the Gregorian new year abound, from those rooted in culture and geography, such as eating 12 grapes at midnight (Spain) or mochi (Japan), to the secular or made-up, like ours. I spoke to five parents about their family’s New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day rituals around food. Each is unique, inspiring and delicious in its own way. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Stylist: Jesse Szewczyk

Say happy birthday to the world with a cake

Jamie Sumner, mother to a 9-year-old and 7-year old twins, loves to bake. “I don’t need much of an excuse to do a baking project,” she says. Four years ago, on an otherwise quiet New Year’s Day, she and her children baked a cake. “I said, ‘It’s a new year and people love to make resolutions, but a lot of times those resolutions are about improving yourself. I want us to think about ways we can improve the world around us. New Year’s is the Earth’s birthday,’” she says. “So we sang ‘Happy Birthday’ and blew out candles and made a wish for the Earth.” Their joyful celebration, apart from being tasty, invites discussions about care for others and environmental stewardship. Last year, Sumner and her family made a red velvet cake. This year, “the debate is heavy” as to what sort of cake they should bake — chocolate, perhaps? “[The children] definitely have a say,” she says.

Credit: Nicole Rufus

Combine flavors from different cuisines and improvise with traditional recipes

Gayatri Sethi is Punjabi and her husband has roots in the American South. “By being multicultural and situated in lots of different places, we’ve created our own traditions inspired by both our family’s heritage foods,” she says. Collard greens and black-eyed peas are central to their celebration, as are yellow and orange foods — and foods often associated with Vaisakhi, a north Indian harvest festival, such as makki di roti and saag or mustard greens. “I’ve created a hybrid thing, a Punjab-meets-Southern Black table: our hoppin’ john has turmeric or my cornbread has saffron, and I make a soup or stew with these essential ingredients,” she says. Her two teenage children look forward to making this meal together. “I often add turnips to our soup, which isn’t a hoppin’ john ingredient,” she says. “When we eat it, we have conversations about what [a particular ingredient] might mean. Each year, whatever that new ingredient is that [the children] may have suggested or chopped and added, we set the intention for the new year based on that.”

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Connect over fondue and conversation

For one night each year, Leslieann Hobayan busts out her fondue set. Her family’s ritual started as a way to make New Year Eve special for her then-young children. “The kids loved it because you’re dipping all this fun stuff on a stick in melted chocolate,” she says. “How can that not be delicious?” The family found the ritual to be grounding, and a great way to interact and connect. “Now that they’re older,” — Hobayan’s eldest is 16-years-old, and her younger two are in middle school — “it’s also become an opportunity [ask] what they thought of the year and what they want to do differently next year.” (In an accompanying nonfood-related tradition, Hobayan and her family pop red balloons filled with coins at midnight — a nod to her Filipinx heritage.)

Embrace multicultural heritage with small plates from all corners of the globe

Jessica MacKenzie’s tradition of finger foods/small plates originated because her “family is such a mishmash.” she says. “I’m Italian American and [of the Jewish faith] and my husband is South Indian. This isn’t the Jewish or Hindu new year, so we just do our own thing.” In previous years, MacKenzie has served spanakopita, mini samosa, or mini-quiches; this year, she plans on putting cauliflower buffalo wings and mini falafel sandwiches on the table. “And because I’m a little bit superstitious, we incorporate the Italian tradition of having lentils which bring riches in the new year,” she says. Her child, 14, has just started cooking and is eager to contribute this year. “They love this [celebration] more than anything else,” she says. “They think it’s brilliant because it’s just not one food on a plate.”

Embrace funny origin stories — like lucky sauerkraut and Vienna sausages

Patricia Tanumihardja’s family’s tradition has a roundabout and charming origin story: “When we first got married, my husband told me about his family’s ‘German’ tradition at new year,” she says. “They’d eat a dish made of sauerkraut and mini hot dogs or wieners for good luck.” His German grandmother used sauerkraut and Vienna sausages; his mother, sauerkraut and little smokies. “I got the recipe from his aunt because he said, ‘Her version is the best version,’” says Tanumihardja. His aunt’s take incorporated sweet kraut and pork loin; Tanumihardja opts for kielbasa. Now, her 11-year-old is a fan, too. Funnily, the tradition isn’t German at all, as far as Tanumihardja knows. “None of my German friends have heard of it and my husband is half-Pakistani and adopted so it goes to show that traditions can come from anywhere!” she says.