Dec. 31? Oh, lucky you

Times Staff Writer

THEY cook, they clean, they shower in the extreme. At midnight they eat hoppin' John or 12 grapes or a dozen black-eyed peas -- all supposedly prescribed by the ancients to bring good luck in the new year.

Canvas Southern California and you'll hear a thousand different home rituals -- ethnic customs, family traditions or just plain kooky rites of weirdness -- that are meant to be lucky. Skeptics may call it silly superstition, but what the heck. If partying and New Year's resolutions haven't made us skinny, rich or lucky in love, maybe it's time to waltz through the house in new red underwear on New Year's Eve. Or to fling open the windows, letting old evil spirits out and lucky ones in. Or to sprinkle sea salt and herbs in the corners of your house, banishing the bad luck and allowing more benevolent influences in.

MELISSA NUNEZ of Pacoima gathers family and friends at home and performs a midnight ritual passed down in her Mexican American family.

"We set a red apple on a clear glass plate that symbolizes purity," she says. "We cut the top off and take out the seeds and core. Then we fill the center with honey. We put coins in the honey, and put the top back on. That's to bring prosperity."

Coins and honey are a New Year tradition first referred to by the Roman poet Ovid, around AD 10. But Nunez doesn't stop there. She also lights four candles at the four corners of the table: a white candle to bring peace, green to bring money, red to bring love, and yellow for family union.

"We light the candles just before midnight," she says, "so they're burning when the new year comes."

Lara Penn and Eartha Brathwaite, both of North Hollywood and both from Trinidad, have brought a slew of New Year's traditions from the Caribbean island.

"We believe that at midnight, the home must be very clean, to make room for luck to enter," Penn says. "The cupboards must be full of good food -- to make sure we have plenty in the coming year. We sprinkle salt in the corners of our house and at our doors to get rid of bad spirits. And we take an extra-heavy-duty shower to cast off all the nasty junk of the old year, so we can have health and prosperity in the year to come."

Some of the most common rituals involve food. Many believe the idea of eating black-eyed peas is from the Old South, where the treat of black-eyed peas and rice is called hoppin' John, but the dish's origin remains unclear. Ricky Crayton, longtime chef at Maurice's Snack 'n Chat in L.A., says he serves black-eyed peas and chitlins at his home every New Year's.

"My family's from the South," he says. "My grandparents and then my parents served black-eyed peas. They said it would bring good luck."

Kelly Lane, a Saugus high school student, says she's always believed black-eyed peas were an Irish tradition.

"Every New Year at midnight, our family gets together and we all have a spoonful of black-eyed peas to bring good luck." She'd like to believe that pea-eating works. "But sometimes I wonder if it's just some nutty idea my Irish grandparents dreamed up."

Then there are the grape people who eat 12 grapes at midnight on New Year's Eve. Some make a wish with each one. Martha Mirandez of Los Angeles says the ritual isn't as easy as it sounds.

"You have to eat the grapes and make your wishes exactly when the clock strikes 12, so the trick is to plan your wishes well in advance," she says. "That way, you can get it all done."

She also courts continued luck in love.

"Before every New Year's, I buy new red underwear. It has to be red. It has to be new." And, she says, it has to be worn when the clock strikes midnight.

HENRY KELLY, a UCLA English professor and specialist in ancient rituals, says he hasn't heard about any of these practices.

"I've been in the superstition business a long time, and I've found nothing about New Year's Eve," he says. "A lot of things that are supposed to be ancient really aren't old at all."

A good example is trick-or-treating. The earliest recorded mention of it is in the 1930s, Kelly says, when it was dreamed up to stop the vandalism taking place on Halloween.

"My suspicion is that all the New Year's superstitions you've mentioned are relatively recent, pretending to be old," he says.

Peter Tokofsky, adjunct professor of world arts and culture at UCLA, says he doesn't use the word superstition. It has a negative connotation and implies doubt where he thinks none should exist. There's validity to tradition, he says, whether it's ancient or new.

"There are myriad beliefs and behaviors which all come from the underlying notion that what happens at the turn of the calendar portends what will happen in the year to come," he says. "You can take that basic concept and turn it into thousands of different rites and rituals, which people all over the world have done."

So it's no surprise, given the diversity of the region, to see someone of Japanese descent hanging white origami cranes in their window, or a neighbor down the street buying a potted kumquat bush in preparation for Chinese New Year -- both symbols of luck and prosperity.

The Dictionary of Superstitions published by Oxford University Press lists other rituals. The first person to enter a house at midnight must be someone special, and must enter and leave through different doors. Nothing must leave the house on New Year's Eve or Day: no trash, no laundry. Don't even shake out a rug or dust cloth, lest a family member be lost to a bad fate. No lobster after midnight, because they move backward in the water, a bad omen for advancement in the coming year.

SAMUEL PEPYS, writing in his famed diary on the last day of 1664, noted that he had "made an end to looking over all my paper, and taking everything out of my chamber to have all made clean."

He was evidently following long-standing superstitions about finalizing paperwork, paying all bills and putting money in your pockets before the old year ends, to ensure a rich new year.

Who can quarrel with any of that? Not Vincent Miraglio, a sales associate at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, who thinks tradition of any sort can be good.

"In my family, we eat a piece of pickled herring at midnight," he says. Does it work? "Who knows?" Miraglio asks. "But a little bit of herring couldn't hurt."

bettijane.levine@latimes.com

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