Roast suckling pigs and lentils are as essential courses on New Year’s eve in Hungary as are bejgli and fisherman’s soup at Christmas or ham and eggs at Easter. But what is the connection between piglets and luck, lentils and prosperity, and how do other countries seek to make sure the coming year is a good one?
Pigs unearth luck, while lentils, being flat and resembling coins, are believed to bring financial abundance. Therefore, eating a hearty meal of roast suckling pig and lentil stew is a way of making sure that our households are not in want of money in the New Year. This tradition is adhered to with enthusiasm by most Magyars, even those who may not wholeheartedly believe in its auspicious effects.
The consumption of lentils at midnight on New Year’s Eve or on the first day of the New Year is one of the most widespread Hungarian customs.
However, fewer people are aware that, according to some, luck stands by our side only when the food is placed on the table precisely at midnight. Most commonly, lentils are consumed in the form of a stew during this time, but the preparation of cold lentil salad is becoming increasingly popular.
Due to their numerous beneficial effects, lentils may be considered a flagship of healthy eating. Virtually every online portal dedicated to healthy nutrition enumerates the arguments in favour of year-round lentil consumption as it contains a wealth of valuable nutrients.
The History of Lentils
One of the oldest and most consistently consumed everyday human foods is lentils. In the earliest archaeological excavations, which unveil the ancient history of human culture, remnants of lentils are almost invariably discovered. The Bible also makes multiple references to lentils.
Ancient Greeks highly esteemed this legume, incorporating it into numerous dishes and even baking bread from them. Hippocrates, the great physician of the era, recommended their consumption for those struggling with liver issues. During Roman times, lentil broth was attempted as a remedy for various illnesses. It was known that regular consumption of lentils had a calming and pacifying effect.
During the Middle Ages, lentils were predominantly considered the fare of the poor (a perception that often persists today). Later, in France, during the reign of Louis XV, lentils gained popularity again, as his wife established a trend of lentil consumption in the royal court.
In the 19th century, some believed that only those facing unfortunate circumstances should eat lentils. In the Middle East and India, lentils are considered a staple food today, with at least 50 varieties recognized and consumed. In our region, essentially two types are known: the traditional domestic lentil (greenish-brown) and the increasingly available red lentil.
In traditional medicine, lentils are believed to have blood-enriching and ‘blood-purifying’ effects.
Red lentils, in particular, are recommended for enhancing sexual desire and addressing infertility. Research indicates that lentils are rich in antioxidant compounds, playing a crucial role in disease prevention.
Delving Deeper into Tradition
Traditionally, foods with distinct grains symbolize prosperity due to the association with abundance, echoing the desire for financial prosperity. This encompasses not only legumes like lentils but also grains like millet, rice, and beans. However, lentils have become particularly prominent in Hungary, possibly owing to their flat, disc-like shape reminiscent of coins. While eating lentils for luck might not be an exclusively Hungarian tradition, the emphasis on size and volume varies across cultures. In Italy, for instance, the focus is on the swelling of lentils, symbolizing growing wealth. Similarly, rice in Pakistan and India is linked to prosperity, with its bulk symbolizing affluence.
In Turkey, the tradition involves consuming pomegranates, as the numerous red seeds scattered from the fruit symbolize future wealth. Beyond wealth, the colour red also symbolizes the human heart, representing life and fertility.
In the southern states of the United States, corn-based desserts are consumed due to the golden brown colour resembling gold. The logic here is clear: consuming the symbolic representation of wealth is believed to attract affluence. Additionally, in the same region, green leafy vegetables are consumed, resembling paper money. While a relatively recent tradition, it aligns with the symbolic connection between greenery and currency, representing financial prosperity.
In Poland, Germany, and Scandinavia, consuming herring at midnight is believed to secure success throughout the year.
The silver scales of the fish are likened to coins. Conversely, in China, serving a whole fish, head to tail, symbolizes a prosperous year from beginning to end. Interestingly, Hungary holds a contrasting belief, where consuming fish on New Year’s Day is considered unlucky, as it is believed that luck would swim away. However, there are also beliefs in some regions that the silvery scales of the fish bring good luck.
The Significance of Shapes
Circular or spherical foods are willingly consumed in many countries as the circle symbolizes completeness, signifying a fulfilling new year. In the Netherlands, round doughnuts called ‘olie bollen’ are baked, while in Ireland, round flatbreads (bannocks) are preferred.
Oranges are popular in many places, chosen for their availability during this season. Fruits are significant for ensuring prosperity in all endeavours. In Spain, for instance, twelve grapes are eaten at midnight—a straightforward connection to the number of strokes on the clock. However, in the Philippines, where 13 is considered a lucky number, they consume 13 round fruits.
Strudel, with its rich filling, is also placed on the table, symbolizing the abundance of the New Year. In many Balkan countries, coins are sometimes baked into these strudels, believed to bring financial luck to the fortunate finder. In Hungary, a similar practice is observed by placing a coin in pastries for the same purpose.
A Pig for Good Luck
In many countries, consuming pork, specifically suckling pigs, is seen as an act that invites good luck, as the pig symbolically roots out luck from the ground. This tradition extends beyond Hungary to places like Austria, Germany, but even Cuba, Spain, or Portugal. The Hungarian saying
‘to have a piglet’, which means to strike it lucky, probably comes from the German phrase ‘Schwein haben’.
Noteworthy attributes of the pig include that it never moves backward, symbolizing progress. But not only pork is consumed for luck: many countries, including Hungary, create pig-shaped pastries, such as marzipan pigs in Germany.
Staying within the realm of animals: eating turkey is not a popular choice on New Year’s Eve because it is believed to bring discord to the household. Poultry, in general, is avoided on the first day of January, with preference given to consuming them on the last day of the year to scratch away misfortune. Additionally, birds scratch backward, symbolically pushing misfortune back into the old year. In contrast, the pig uses its snout to dig forward, symbolizing the unearthing of luck.
In conclusion, the diverse culinary traditions associated with New Year celebrations worldwide reveal a rich tapestry of beliefs, symbolisms, and customs aimed at inviting in prosperity, luck, and abundance in the coming year. Whether it is grains, fruits, shapes, or animals that are at the centre of these customs, they reflect the universal human desire for a promising and flourishing future.