My city-slicker grandmother who did not grow up in the mountains of West Virginia, recalled with a twinkle in her eye, the first time she had new year’s dinner with my grandfather’s family in the coalfields of Southern West Virginia.
“I remember sitting down and they brought out a big pot of cooked cabbage and each person had a cabbage roll plopped down onto their plate… About five minutes into dinner, I took a bite and it felt like I had put something metal into my mouth.
“Trying my best to retain the lady-like charm I thought I possessed, I quietly excused myself from the table and soon found what appeared to be a dime spit into my napkin…”
Though at first she was baffled as to how a dime had found its way into her dinner, she soon underwent her first of many lessons in Appalachia 101.
In the years ahead, she would come to embrace the mountain tradition of eating cabbage on the first day of the year, though she never completely bought into the idea of hiding a silver coin in one of the rolls for good luck to the unsuspecting individual who found it!
“Why not eat cabbage on the first day of the year,” she once quipped, “all the stores in West Virginia have it on sale the day before New Years.”
But where did this seemingly bizarre mountain tradition come from and what does it signify?
Turns out, like so many other aspects of Appalachian tradition and culture, this New Year’s practice was born more out of necessity than convenience.
With many mountain families growing the vast majority of the food they consumed all the way up to a generation ago, by mid-winter, cabbage was often the staple vegetable.
Keeping considerably longer through the cold months than most other veggies and being significantly cheaper made this the ideal New Year’s food for a large family.
Over the course of time, this unassuming custom would grow into a tradition in the mountains.
In the years ahead, the Scots-Irish who settled large portions of Appalachia (or kept it from being settled!) married the dinner with an old-world custom of hiding various coins in cooking mashed potatoes with kale or cabbage on special occasions and holidays – the recipient of which would be blessed in the year ahead.
Another new year tradition observed throughout the mountains was one known as “First Footer”.
This belief taught that if the first person to set foot in your house after the New Year was a tall and dark haired man, you have good luck for the coming year.
Times have always been tough for the people of Appalachia and they often have found themselves running low on hope — which is why the mountain people have so resolutely clung to a countless number of traditions and superstitions; especially when it comes to the new year… which reveals that they’ve always been looking forward.
It is important to note that this tradition requires a pure silver coin, not a clad coin as most are today.
These old traditions have become a major part of our region’s heritage and must be shared before they are forgotten altogether. We wish you and your family a blessed new year… whatever tradition you may observe!
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This article was featured in the 2017 print edition of Appalachian Magazine. Click here to purchase the print publication!