Tips from old-time Ozarkers on ensuring a lucky new year

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The Ozarks region has many traditions tied to New Year’s Day.


While new year’s resolutions help the well-intended commit to their efforts nowadays, Ozarkers in days of old also worked to ensure the new year was better than the last.

“The new year is regarded with a great deal of curiosity — even awe — as a date which historically brought people face-to-fact with the end of one era and the beginning of another era, even if that era only spans one year,” told Donald Holliday, assistant professor of English at then-Southwest Missouri State University, to a Springfield newspaper reporter in 1977. “It’s a time filled with a good deal of mystery because any time you look into the future, you look into the unknown, like crystal-ball-gazing.”

Their goals, however, weren’t as specific as losing unwanted weight, making better financial decisions or quitting tobacco. (Perhaps some wanted luck in their tobacco-growing!) Instead, old-time hill folk worked to ensure that the new year’s early moments laid the way for good fortune for them and their families.

There’s no data to show how effective these efforts were but, as one Ozarker told folklorist Vance Randolph way back when, “It ain’t much trouble, just for one day, an’ me and’ Maw don’t aim to take no chances.”

Keep reading for a few suggestions to make this year — and future ones — your best yet — at least according to old-time Ozarkers.

Eat a bowl of black-eyed peas.

It’s still speculated that eating black-eyed peas brings good luck (although some might say those who don’t eat them are the lucky ones).

“I have known country folk who rode a long way to get these peas for a New Year’s dinner, even though they did not care particularly for black-eyed peas, and seldom ate them at any other time,” wrote folklorist Randolph in his book, “Ozark Magic and Folklore,” in 1947. “Fred Starr quotes a granny-woman near Fayetteville, Arkansas, as saying: ‘On New Year’s you just eat black-eyed peas, with a dime under your plate, an’ wear a pair of red garters, an’ you’ll have good luck the whole year.'”

That luck, however, isn’t limited to folks in the Ozarks.

“The superstition about eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for a happy and prosperous year ahead extends far beyond the Ozarks into the entire south,” reported the Springfield Leader & Press on Jan. 1, 1959. “For double insurance, some Ozarkers also eat cabbage on the first day of the year.”

Don’t put up a new calendar early.

Hanging a calendar prematurely puts the writing on the wall: Doing so means bad luck is only days ahead, old-time Ozarkers said.

“Every backwoods family, even if no member of the group is able to read, has a calendar and probably an almanac as well, in order to keep track of the signs and phases of the moon,” wrote Randolph. “But it is very bad luck to hang up a calendar or almanac before sunup on New Year’s Day, and I have known children to be severely punished for doing so.”

Watch out for visitors.

Be very careful about who is allowed to first darken your doorway on Jan. 1 — and make sure it’s not Grandma, since a woman may signify bad luck.

“The first person to visit you on New Year’s Day is of great importance,” said a Ozarker from Pine Bluff, Ark., in the late 1950s or early ’60s. “If he is lazy, your garden will be sorry.”

On the flip side, Ozarks journalist and historian Lucile Morris Upton said in 1977 that “traditional Ozarkers believe if the first person to enter your house on New Year’s Day is cheerful and happy, you’ll have good fortune — but if the person is cross, you’ll have a gloomy future.”

And you should probably start party-planning now if someone shows up unexpectedly.

“An unexpected visitor on Jan. 1 signifies that many others will come to the house during the year; this prediction is often regarded with mixed emotions, since hill folk do not care for too many uninvited callers,” wrote Randolph.

“A large group of visitors on New Year’s is regarded as a favorable omen, though nobody seems to know just what sort of good fortune may be expected to follow such an invasion.”

Open your windows for a few minutes on New Year’s Eve.

Don’t worry, the windfall will be worth the windchill.

“I have been personally acquainted with several Ozark families who always opened their windows for a few minutes on New Year’s Eve, just before midnight, no matter what the temperature or weather conditions,” wrote Randolph.

“Asked about the purpose of this, the younger people grinned tolerantly, saying it was supposed to let bad luck out and good luck in. But the old folks said nothing at all and looked very solemn indeed. It was plainly no laughing matter for them.”

Put down the laundry basket.

Skip the suds: Washing clothes on January 1 isn’t worth risking death-by-laundry.

“Washing clothes on the first day of the new year is thought to bring a year of hard work, but it is also thought to cause a relative’s death,” printed a 1977 Springfield Leader & Press newspaper article.

And even if someone pooh-poohed the threat of death, there was another concern to worry about. “A woman who washed clothes on New Year’s will have to work very hard all year,” noted Randolph.

If you visit, don’t take anything out of the house…

Don’t offer to help haul out trash from last night’s New Year’s Eve party, lest you offend the host.

“Perhaps the most striking feature of Ozarkers’ New Year’s behavior is reluctance to allow anything to be taken out of the house on January 1,” wrote Randolph. “I once knew a woman who absentmindedly carried a bucket of ashes out on New Year’s morning; she was shaken almost to the point of hysteria, and the whole family was horrified, although nobody seemed to know just what specific calamity was supposed to result.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Upton in the 1977 Springfield newspaper article.

“Ozarks people took precautions not to carry out anything from their homes on New Year’s Day,” said Upton. “‘And every time they went outside, they always tried to bring something in with them. That was to insure the new year would be characterized by less outage and more income.'”

…and bring in as many items as you can.

If you’re allowed into someone’s home on New Year’s Day, be sure not to come empty-handed.

“Many broad-minded modernists pretend that there is no harm in carrying something out, provided you are careful to take something else in; thus it’s permissible to throw out a pan of potato peelings if one immediately lugs in a bucket of water or an armload of wood,” wrote Randolph.

“The real old-timers figure it is safer not to take anything out of the cabin on January 1, but to pack in as much stuff as possible. Some old folks take this so seriously that they won’t allow anyone to enter on that day without depositing something, even if it’s only a few walnuts or a handful of chips.”

Avoid spending money.

This year, skip the coffee shop latte — or you may be spending a latte more money later.

“One Springfieldian remembers from her childhood a family that began the new year in an unusually thrifty manner,” noted the 1977 article. “‘They wouldn’t spend a nickel on New Year’s Day,’ said Mrs. Clyde Mead. ‘They believed that if they spent money on the first day of the new year, they would spend money all year long.'”

Spend the day doing something worthwhile.

Perhaps there was another reason why Ozarkers weren’t supposed to do the washing on Jan. 1.

“Many Ozark natives believe that whatever a person does on January 1 is an indication of what he will be doing all the rest of the year,” wrote Randolph. “On this account many people are very cautious on New Year’s Day, and drunkards often make a superhuman effort to keep sober. In Pineville, Missouri, I have seen men sit with watches in their hands and whiskey jugs before them, waiting until midnight before taking a drink.”

Watch the weather.

Some things never change, and one of those things is people’s incessant desire to predict the weather. Nowadays, meteorologists interpret signs with fancy equipment — but way back when, old-timers also looked at signs to predict how things would go.

Back then, though, they used things like persimmons, cobwebs, wooly worms and fogs. “The old saying is, ‘You have so many heavy mists in August, you’ll have that many snows in winter,” said Mary Scott Hair, Stone County folklorist, historian and newspaper columnist, in 1987.

Another way, however, has to do with the first 12 days in January.

“Many hillfolk believe that the first twelve days of January rule the weather of the entire year,” wrote Randolph. “That is, if January 1 is cloudy, the whole month of January will be cloudy; if January 2 is clear, the whole month of February will be clear; if January 3 is stormy, the whole month of March will be stormy, and so on.

“Clink O’Neill, of Day, Missouri, remarked to me that there may be something to this theory, ‘if it ain’t carried too far,’ adding that he doubted whether snow on January 8 means that there will also be snow storms in August,” added Randolph.

Resources

“By the way,” Springfield Leader & Press, Jan. 1, 1959

“‘Christmas baby won’t be hanged,'” Springfield Leader & Press, Dec. 26, 1985

“New Year’s filled with my superstitions,” Kathy Maniaci (Kathleen O’Dell), Springfield Leader & Press, Dec. 31, 1977

“Ozark Magic and Folklore,” Vance Randolph, 1947

“Persimmons, Pia and ’37 Packards,” Mike O’Brien, Springfield News-Leader, Nov. 8, 1987