Looks like the Smithsonian is muscling in on the history myth business! Here’s their terrific post about a vegetable myth that I think you’ll enjoy . . . and it does have a good deal to do with history.
Revisited Myth # 142: During the Civil War, soldiers bit bullets to combat the pain when no anesthesia was available. mmFebruary 4, 2019
Rhonda Florian wrote: “I’m hoping you can help me with some information. I am a living historian. I keep running into what I believe is a history myth—that soldiers used to bite on a bullet during surgery. I always scoff at the idea. I ask the person, “What’s going to happen the first time you scream?” Besides, I ask, what would be the purpose of biting a bullet even if it were humanly possible? But then there’s always that person who says they’ve seen a Civil War bullet with teeth marks on it. Undeniable proof, they exclaim.”
I can only point to an excellent response to this question, written by George Wunderlich, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, here.
With the disfunctional U.S. government in the news so much these past few weeks, I thought I’d boost your spirits with this debunking of commonly held myths about our congressmen and women. As Abraham Lincoln used to say, “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”
Revisited Myth #139: The association of black-eyed peas with New Year’s Day and good luck comes from Sherman’s March to the Sea during the the Civil WarDecember 28, 2018
Pat McMillion from Burritt on the Mountain, Huntsville, AL, wrote to ask if I would take on this story behind the tradition that black-eyed peas eaten on New Year’s Day would bring good luck. (Actually, I had mentioned it back in July of 2013, but this week we’ll give it full court press, as I’ve been seeing displays of dried peas in the grocery stores, ready for New Year’s Day.)
The story told throughout the South is that the tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck dates back to Sherman’s March to the Sea in the fall of 1864, when the Yankees laid waste to the Georgia countryside, stealing, killing, or burning everything in their wide path. Survivors faced starvation, until they realized Sherman’s men had left silos full of black-eyed peas, thinking it was food fit only for livestock, as was the case in the North at that time. And since there was no more livestock, there was no use for the peas, so theYankees left the beans alone, and the South was saved from starvation. Hence the good luck. (The relationship to New Year’s Day is fuzzy.)
Anyone knowledgable about history would surely raise their eyebrows at this lame story–silos full of black-eyed peas in 1864? According to footnoted references in Wikipedia, the first modern silos were invented in Illinois in the 1870s, but we’ll leave that aside, assuming the story doesn’t really mean silos but rather “storage.” It’s just hard for me to picture Sherman’s troops being quite that carefully judgmental as they loot and burn a wide swath of territory for over a month. All the soldiers who came across storage bins with black-eyed peas came to the independent conclusion that they could be left in place because they were no use to anyone but animals? Not logical. Another flaw in the story: the Yankees actually did confiscate animal fodder–millions of pounds of it–either for their own animals or to ship North as contraband.
But never mind common sense, we must search for hard evidence! (Excuse the enthusiasm, I’m having a glass of wine as I write.)
Black-eyed peas are native to Africa and/or the Far East, and they figure prominently in Southern African-American cuisine. It’s logical that the African-born slaves brought food-related customs with them (“cultural baggage”) long before General Sherman marched to the sea. But black-eyed peas also belong to a 2,500-year-old Jewish custom that links the food to a celebratory meal at Rosh Hashanah. Martha Katz-Hyman, curator at Yorktown Victory Center, sent an informative link to a Jewish article which points to the Babylonian Talmud. “Now that you have said that an omen is significant, at the beginning of each year, each person should accustom himself to eat gourds, black-eyed peas, fenugreek….” Each of the foods (nine in total) represents something different for the year ahead; the black-eyed peas symbolize good fortune.” Read more: http://forward.com/articles/112887/at-rosh-hashanah-black-eyed-peas-for-good-fortune/#ixzz3OMoliuUG. The good-fortune/New Year link to black-eyed peas, this article states, likely arrived in America with the Sephardic Jews who moved to the South. The traditions of the Jews and the African slaves, who did much of the cooking in Southern homes, overlapped with black-eyed peas.
Sharon (no last name) wrote in July of 2013 that “if 18th c. Jews traditionally ate beans for Rosh HaShana, it wasn’t for luck. Rosh HaShana is a two-day “yom tov” or holy day, and Jews are not allowed to light fires or cook on holy days. So it was a long-standing tradition to assemble a casserole, usually something like a pot of beans, and set it among the banked coals on the hearth before the holiday starts, so it will slow-cook like a crock pot meal, and still be hot a day or (even two days) later. However I seriously doubt that anyone in the American South learned this from their Jewish neighbors as a New Year’s tradition. Rosh HaShana is in September or very early October, and non-Jewish southerners would almost certainly not have understood enough about the holiday to make the connection to their own New Year’s celebrations.” Good point, Sharon, but Rosh Hashana is the Jewish new year, so the connection is there.
Another article in Forward.com, the Jewish Daily, explains a mixup between fenugreek and black-eyed peas (although I note the quote from the Talmud mentions both, so there, at least, is no mix up.). “Fenugreek is a little seed that the Talmud calls rubia, which sounds like yirbu, the word for “to increase” — as in, to increase luck. But it actually increased confusion, says [food historian] Gil Marks, because the Sephardim got it mixed up with lubia, the word for black-eyed peas. So the Sephardim began eating black-eyed peas rather than fenugreek for good luck in the new year, a tradition they brought with them when some of them up and moved to the colonies. There, non-Jewish Southerners picked up the tradition, too, which is why — Marks swears — to this day, many of them eat black-eyed peas on Rosh Hashanah.” Thank you, Mr. Marks.
Another reader of this blog, a “Southerner married to an Englishman,” chimed in. “In northeast England it is traditional to eat carlings on New Years for good luck. Carlings [or carlins] are a black-eyed pea. This tradition is older than the U.S. Civil War and comes from an old Catholic tradition during Lent. Carlings began to be seen as good luck, period. The history of the Carling Festival and Carling Sunday [during Lent] might help with understanding why southerners eat black-eyed peas for good luck at new years.”
So . . . as we enter the new year, let’s view this myth with some skepticism. The association of black-eyed peas and good luck seems to date back before the American Civil War, and it seems to have existed in at least two distinct cultures: northern English and Jewish. I can’t provide definitive proof that it is a myth, and you needn’t be convinced, however, I am. (Pass the wine bottle.) And may the new year bring you good health and much happiness! Cheers!
6 previous Responses to Myth #139: The association of black-eyed peas with good luck comes from Sherman’s March to the Sea during the the Civil War.
This isn’t an actual myth, but in honor of the holidays, I thought I’d post this bit of research submitted by Kenneth Archbold of Mount Vernon, who reports that people there were debating which greeting–Merry Christmas or Happy Christmas–would have been used during George Washington’s time. Thank you, Kenneth!
From what I’ve been able to find out, “Merry Christmas” is indeed what one was more likely to use at the time, if any greeting was used at all. Different sources trace the origin of the phrase back to different dates, but in each case that I’ve seen, they all pre-date the 18th Century. The casual use of the phrase in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” seems to suggest that it was already well-known to the English by the early to mid-19th Century. “Happy Christmas” seems to have originated in the late 19th Century and, in the opinions of some, grew out of the temperance movement in an effort diminish any association of Christmas with the alcohol fueled celebrations of Christmas past (the word “merry” being often associated with drinking, indulgence and raucous celebrations).
If you were to step back in time to 18th-century America, how likely would you have been to hear any greeting at all on Christmas day? As you probably already know, that depended on where exactly you were. If you were in New England, the answer would be none at all since the Puritans had banned the holiday in the mid-17th century, and it wouldn’t be celebrated there again until the early 19th century. The Quakers in Pennsylvania might not have outlawed it, but they didn’t really observe it either. Anglicans, Catholics, Lutherans, etc. on the other hand celebrated Christmas as we might expect with parties, dances, big dinners, decorating with holly and mistletoe (no Christmas tree, though) and good Christmas cheer. An article on the subject is here: http://www.revolutionarywararchives.org/christmasthen.html According to this article, Christmas was celebrated most heartily in the Southern colonies.
So all considered, I think it is appropriate to gladly wish visitors to Mount Vernon and Williamsburg a Merry Christmas.
Well, yes and no. Ironically, the German Christmas tree came to America from England, courtesy of an English queen.
The Christmas tree is a German tradition that can be traced back to the 1500s to Strasbourg, which is now part of France. (See Myth #73) But it was a minor tradition confined to the Alsace region that did not spread to the rest of Germany until after 1750. German-speaking immigrants had been coming to America in significant numbers since the late 17th century. Many came from parts of Germany where the decorated tree custom was unknown. Many did not celebrate Christmas at all, for religious reasons (like the Puritans in New England). So, not all German immigrants were aware of the Christmas tree custom, and some of those who were aware of it opposed all celebration of Christmas.
But some German immigrants did celebrate the holiday with a decorated tree. There are numerous references to Christmas trees in America, each competing to be first in its state or region, and a few lay claim to the 1700s. Whenever the name of the family setting up one of these early trees is known, it is a German-sounding name. But this quaint German custom might well have died out as immigrants assimilated had it not been for the influence of an English queen.
When Queen Victoria’s German-born husband and first cousin, Prince Albert, arranged for a fir tree to be brought from his homeland and decorated in 1841, it created a minor sensation throughout the English-speaking world, thanks to the newly important media: the magazine. Everyone knew about Queen Victoria’s Christmas tree. A print of the royal family gathered about the Christmas tree at Windsor Castle appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1848, then in Godey’s Lady’s Bookin 1850, and was reprinted again ten years later. The six-foot fir sits on a table, each tier laden with a dozen or more lighted wax tapers. An angel with outstretched arms poses at the top. Gilt gingerbread ornaments and tiny baskets filled with sweets hang by ribbons from the branches. Clustered around the base of the tree are dolls and soldiers and toys.
The queen’s Christmas tree certainly caught the public’s imagination. It was not, however, the first German tree in England, as is commonly thought. Queen Victoria had seen one as a girl in 1832. The little princess wrote excitedly in her diary that her Aunt Sophia had set up two “trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed around the tree.” And long before that, in 1789, Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, the last king of America, sent to her native Meckelberg-Strelitz in northern Germany for a Christmas tree. The queen’s physician, Dr. John Watkins, described it as “a charming imported German custom, [with] bunches of sweetmeats, almonds, and raisins in papers, fruits, and toys most tastefully arranged” on its branches. Charming it may have been, but it didn’t stick. More than three generations would pass before the custom took root in England and in America.
Once the royal seal of approval had been stamped solidly on the Christmas tree, the practice spread throughout England and America and, to a lesser extent, to other parts of the world, through magazine pictures and articles. Upper-class Victorian Englishmen loved to imitate the royal family, and Americans followed suit. Late in the century, larger floor-to-ceiling trees replaced the tabletop size.
The Christmas trees that existed in America before the Queen Victoria media blitz seemed to have involved Moravians (now the Czech Republic), Alsatians (now France), or other German-Americans, and the custom had shown no sign of spreading beyond those narrow ethnic groups. The writer of an 1825 article in The Saturday Evening Post mentions seeing trees in the windows of many houses in Philadelphia, a city with a large German population. He wrote, Their “green boughs [were] laden with fruit, richer than the golden apples of the Hesperides, or the sparkling diamonds that clustered on the branches in the wonderful cave of Aladdin.” Gilded apples and nuts hung from the branches as did marzipan ornaments, sugar cakes, miniature mince pies, spicy cookies cut from molds in the shape of stars, birds, fish, butterflies, and flowers. A woman visiting German friends in Boston in 1832 wrote about their unusual tree hung with gilded eggshell cups filled with candies.
Not until the mid-nineteenth century did Christmas trees start spreading to homes with no known German connection. In Virginia, Judge Nathaniel Beverley Tucker adopted the custom after a German friend introduced him to the Christmas tree in 1842. Robert E. Lee’s children enjoyed a tabletop tree at their quarters at West Point, NY, in 1853 when their father was Superintendent of the Military Academy. President Franklin Pierce set up a “German tree” in the White House in 1856. Newspapers and women’s magazines like Ladies Home Journal and Godey’s Lady’s Book spread the Christmas tree custom to all ethnic groups and economic classes.
Merry Christmas to all!