Do you know why black-eyed peas are lucky on New Year's Day? As with most superstitions, there are several answers to the question. Typically, the belief that black-eyed peas are a lucky New Year's meal is especially popular in the south, so it has to do with our history, right? Maybe.
Most Southerners will tell you that it dates back to the Civil War. Black-eyed peas were considered animal food (like purple hull peas). The peas were not worthy of General Sherman's Union troops. When Union soldiers raided the Confederates food supplies, legend says they took everything except the peas and salted pork. The Confederates considered themselves lucky to be left with those meager supplies, and survived the winter. Peas became symbolic of luck.
Black-eyed peas were also given to slaves, as were most other traditional New Year's foods. Let's face it: a lot of the stuff we eat on New Year's is soul food. One explanation of the superstition says that black-eyed peas were all the southern slaves had to celebrate with on the first day of January, 1863. What were they celebrating? That was the day when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. From then on, peas were always eaten on the first day of January.
Others say that since the south has generally always been the place for farming, black-eyed peas are just a good thing to celebrate with in the winter. Not many crops grow this time of the year, but black-eyed peas hold up well, were cheap and just make sense.
The oldest explanation for this tradition I found is on Wikipedia. According to Wikipedia, the tradition dates as far ancient Egypt. During the time of the Pharaohs, it was believed that eating a meager food like black-eyed peas showed humility before the gods, and you would be blessed. According to Wikipedia, the Babylonian Talmud, which dates to 339 CE, instructs the faithful Jews to eat black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashana. The belief was similar: those who ate black-eyes showed their humility and saved themselves from the wrath of God.
How do you eat the peas? My family always argues over this. Some people believe you should cook them with a new dime or penny, or add it to the pot before serving. The person who receives the coin in their portion will be extra lucky. Some say you should eat exactly 365 peas on New Year's day. If you eat any less, you'll only be lucky for that many days. I guess on leap years, you need to eat an extra one. If you eat any more than 365 peas, it turns those extra days into bad luck. Some say you should leave one pea on your plate, to share your luck with someone else (more of the humbleness that peas seems to represent). Some say if you don't eat every pea on your plate, your luck will be bad.
It's also said that if you eat only black peas, and skip the pork, collard greens and the accompaniments, the luck won't stick. They all work together or not at all.