A lucky charm for your Christmas feast

Eating specific foods for good luck is an ancient Christmastime tradition. Rice porridge with an almond is an integral part of Finnish festivities.

According to tradition, the lucky person to come across the almond in his or her rice porridge bowl is the next one to marry. But why an almond in a pot?

Russian-Canadian researcher specialising in history of food Alexandra ”Sasha” Grigorieva helps explain.

According to her, understanding the origin of the almond means one must go back to antiquity, to Rome and the Saturnalia. That holiday turned the world upside down: a king of Saturnalia was chosen for a day, and the masters served their slaves.

After the rise of Christianity, the names and themes of the celebrations were changed, but many of the traditions remained. Instead of Saturnalia, the December feast came to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

“So the more boisterous revelries, such as fancy dress and games, were moved to January 6, the day of Epiphany and its eve, the Twelfth Night,” explains Grigorieva, presently a core fellow at Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki.

Rule for a day, pay tomorrow

The first indications of Christmas foods eaten for good luck are from the Middle Ages. That was when the tradition of hiding a single bean in a cake was first recorded in England and France. Whoever found the bean would become king for a day.

This custom was particularly popular in 17th century Europe.

The Bean King Feast was celebrated at home on the Twelfth Night or on the day of Epiphany. The person who found the bean in their piece of cake was crowned king, and the rest of the family had to follow his commands, no matter how far-fetched.

You do not have to be a scholar to see a connection to Saturnalia. However, how beans and other lucky foods are connected to this tradition is unclear.

“What is known is that the Romans gave coins and dry fruit as New Year presents and we have evidence of dates stuffed with coins, so this is another winter celebration tradition that later spread out to Christmas and Epiphany,” says Grigorieva.

In England Christmas pudding used to contain lucky charms such as coins, rings etc. In France, the tradition of the Galette des Rois on Epiphany is still observed, but instead of real beans, cakes contain small china figurines.

In Northern Italy, the real bean is still hidden in a local sweet focaccia. And yes, you have to pay for the cake if you find the bean.

Beans & destiny vs. coins & luck

Grigorieva divides winter fortune foods into two groups: those for fate and those for luck. Lucky coins are more common in the North-West and South-East of Europe, while beans are more typical in the continental West.

Beans could be originally associated with death and destiny. The king for a day must later sacrifice the privilege. Some anthropologists even trace the bean king tradition back to rituals of human sacrifice.

Meanwhile, lucky coins represent good luck with no strings attached. The almonds in Nordic porridge are tied to the latter tradition.

Nordic porridge traditions

In the Nordic countries as well as Russia, Christmas is celebrated with porridge instead of pastries. The traditional barley was replaced by the more expensive imported rice in the mid-19th century. Finns also adopted the tradition of lucky almonds from Sweden.

But what makes the almond lucky in rice porridge? Even Grigorieva does not have a definitive answer to that. One explanation could be that in the middle of the 19th century, almonds, like rice, were luxury goods that only the rich could afford so they were very special.

Also in Sweden, Norway and Denmark one gets an almond marzipan pig for finding the almond in one’s Christmas porridge so an almond might be its representation.

The reason may also be practical: a white almond is easier to hide in the white rice porridge than a metal coin.

Happy Holidays from the University of Helsinki!