Within the past three months we’ve been through three sets of quasi-religious holidays with more or less pagan origins. Corn Night and Halloween were both established Celtic traditions long before the Church declared November 1 to be All Saints’ Day, Thanksgiving coincides with England’s ancient harvest celebrations, and of course Christmas was the Winter Solstice festival in many ancient cultures thousands of years earlier than the birth of Jesus of Nazareth ever became associated with the date. And so now, as a sort of goodbye to 2016 and a welcome to 2017, many eastern Kentucky families will be ringing in the New Year with one more time-honored custom with origins in ancient superstition: the cooking and eating of cabbage on January 1, which is supposed to assure good luck and prosperity for an observant household in the coming year. You can use plain boiled cabbage of the type you serve up with corned beef and pinto beans, sauerkraut if you prefer it to the fresh article, cabbage rolls if you want to make it a little bit fancier, even egg rolls or kimchi if you’re into Asian cuisine; as long as some form of cabbage is in your New Year’s Day meal, good luck is supposed to be there as well.
My folks weren’t superstitious about most things, so I’m not sure why they insisted on following the cabbage tradition. Maybe the fact that their parents also observed it was enough to continue it from year to year. At least that’s Sweet Tater’s rationale for maintaining it, and I suppose it’s as good as any. For whatever reason, back when I was young it was always boiled cabbage on January 1 at my folks’, and my mother used to put a dime in the pot when she cooked it, I assume to bring extra luck to whomever found the coin on his or her plate when dinner was dished up. Dad always preferred, or at least claimed to prefer, the inclusion of a rusty horseshoe instead of a dime, but Mom never was willing to serve up a meal fortified with quite that much iron. An old horseshoe was good enough to nail up over the top door post (always with the argument, too, about whether the ends should be pointing upward to catch good luck or downward to distribute it, and whether or not the ends pointing down brought bad luck instead of good) but not for the cabbage pot.
All this leaves me wondering why we even bother with our old good-luck rituals. Are they, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet phrased it, honored more in the breach than in the observance? As long as they’re not taken too literally, they don’t do any real harm, but then again they don’t often do much good either. Maybe the traditions are worth observing simply to remember something of how our ancestors thought and acted. And there are actually a few old wives’ tales, associated with the treatment of sickness at least, that make genuine medical sense. One of these is the maxim that “scorched things heal,” and in a very real way, they do. Midwives used to scorch cloths over the fire to tie off umbilical cords and to swaddle newborn babies, without ever knowing that the real healing property of scorching was that heat sterilized the articles. Another, harking back to the idea that horseshoes bring good luck, was a remedy for iron deficiency that called for dissolving the metallic scraps or “clinkers” from a blacksmith’s forge in vinegar, and then drinking the mixture as a tonic. My grandfather Sparks, who knew his way around both a blacksmith’s shop and the motor barn of a coal mine in equal measure, used to swear by that one, and in fact it did provide a simple, homemade means for the relief of anemia long before over-the-counter vitamins had ever been dreamed up. I doubt that I’ll ever get enough courage to taste that kind of concoction myself, though. To borrow another of Granddad Sparks’ sayings, I just imagine it was sour enough to make a pig squeal.
In the end, I suppose that New Year’s luck and traditions are questions I’ll just have to take up with Chuck Q. Farley the next time I talk to him. He and Polly Esther have invited me and Sweet Tater down to eat cabbage with them on New Year’s Day, and I anticipate that we’ll have a lot to discuss and even a few things simply to cuss, or at least cuss at. So Happy New Year from our houses to yours—and enjoy your cabbage.