Whether one celebrates Christmas, Kwanzaa, or Chanukah, the “Holy City” is a special place during the holiday season, and there’s no better place to ring in the New Year than the Lowcountry, with its age-old traditions combined with fun new venues for that count-down cocktail. From fireworks at Patriot’s Point to a traditional oyster roast to a Polar Bear Plunge on Folly, there’s a New Year’s activity for everyone’s taste.
A Lowcountry Chanukah
South Carolina has the oldest Jewish population in the American South, comprised of Sephardic Jews who came to the Lowcountry from Spain and Portugal in the colonial era. In 1749, they founded Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, one of the five oldest synagogues in the United States. In the early twentieth century, the Jewish population here diversified to include Eastern Europeans.
Today there are over 8,000 Jews in the Lowcountry area who celebrate Chanukah as their predecessors did, both in the various synagogues in the region, and at a free, fun, and family friendly Chanukah in the Square festival, hosted in Marion Square each year to commemorate the beginning of the sacred season. The event is hosted by the City of Charleston’s Office of Cultural Affairs and the College of Charleston Jewish Studies Program, and includes live music and dancing, food, and the time-honored menorah lighting at sunset.
Kwanzaa, which means “first fruits” in Swahili, is a relatively new holiday forged from historic African traditions. Kwanzaa was established in 1966 as a celebratory holiday for all African peoples, “rooted in traditional African celebrations of the first harvest of yearly crops,” and was first celebrated in Charleston in 1988 at the International Longshoremen’s Hall (a historically Black union). This year, it begins on December 26th and is a seven-day observance of the Nguzo Saba, the seven African cultural values that build community and celebrate culture. Each year on the 26th, Marion Square is home to a Kwanzaa ceremony to light the first candle of the Kinara (which has seven candles for the seven days of Kwanzaa, in traditional African colors of red, green, and black). The event is a great cultural celebration open to the whole community, free of charge, and includes traditional African music, drumming, and dancers.
Foodways and Folk traditions for the New Year
New Year’s has always been an important and revered holiday in the Lowcountry. City offices were closed, enslaved people typically had time off to celebrate the holidays with their loved ones, and banking houses shuttered their shops. Even the weigh master at the bustling port and exchange was given the 4th of July, Christmas, and New Year’s Day off.
Proper southerners prepare a time-honored January 1st feast with key ingredients to bring luck for the New Year. Hoppin’ John, made with rice, chopped onion, ham or bacon, and black-eyed peas or field peas bring wealth, and are served alongside collard greens or mustard greens slowed cooked with ham hock till they’re sweet and tender. A side of cornbread the color of ochre or gold also brings financial luck for the coming year. Carolima’s soul food chef Sameka Jenkins explains that pork symbolizes prosperity, but smoked turkey or fish was substituted in the past, based on availability during tough farming years.
New Year’s Eve holds special meaning for African American Lowcountry denizens, who celebrate the transition to the new year with a church service called Watch Night. The pastor leads a prayer beginning at 15 minutes before midnight, and the congregants pray alongside in the dark. At the stroke of twelve, the lights are brightened, and everyone embraces as the New Year begins. Watch Night commemorates New Year’s Eve 1863 when the enslaved Gullah Geechee people “began to emerge from slavery as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation taking effect” during the American Civil War. Heather Hodges of the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor explains, “we want all Americans to remember that January 1st meant significantly more than the coming of a new year. In 1863, it also meant the beginning of the end of centuries of bondage.” Watch Night service usually has sacred music, prayers, and speeches of reconciliation.
Ringing in 2022
Charleston is home to countless bars and breweries, which are all open and ready to welcome revelers on a NYE pub crawl. Some host ticketed, themed events with hours of snacks, drinking and dancing. The Wonderer (upper Meeting Street, $40) and LO-Fi Brewing ($35) have festivals with several live bands, food vendors, night markets, and fire pits. South Carolina Aquarium has a festive, 1920s themed Gatsby Gala ($120) with open bars featuring specialty roaring 20s cocktails, food stations, and music. Dress to impress in your finest Jazz Age finery.
If you fancy ringing in the New Year on the water, tickets are available ($170) on the Carolina Girl, a plush 106-foot yacht. Charleston Wonderland NYE is another spectacular, all-inclusive celebration ($190, venue at 56 Beaufain Street in the historic Memminger Auditorium). Their website explains, “Each year an amazing team of 100+ people create the unbelievable experience now simply referred to as “Wonderland.” Charleston Wonderland features a premium all-inclusive bar, amazing performers, incredible live bands and DJs, cirque performers and variety acts, state-of-the-art A/V and so much more. Inside the meticulously styled space, guests will enjoy a non-stop entertainment lineup we welcome in the new year. Everything from a champagne toast with Charleston’s largest balloon drop at midnight, to photo booths, specialty cigar lounges and so many more surprises.”
South Carolinians love to light fireworks to commemorate holidays, especially on the Fourth of July and New Year. Instead of picking up an assortment from a roadside stand, the Yorktown Countdown at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant offers a spectacular celebration with loads of parking and outdoor seating for thousands. The fireworks display is also visible from downtown Charleston’s parking decks and rooftop bar and bright lights burst of the World War Two era aircraft carrier. Those who purchase tickets for the actual Yorktown Countdown party (9pm-1am) get to dance, drink, and mingle to live music between historic airplanes on the massive flight deck, which is station with large, heated tents in case the evening gets crisp.
For a more subdued and romantic New Year’s Eve, Circa 1886 offers a prix fixe holiday feast in their nineteenth century carriage house-turned-lush restaurant tucked behind the Wentworth Mansion hotel. This year’s special menu includes honey and white balsamic poached pear, lobster bisque, Thai peanut chicken sausage, mustard crusted bass, braised beef cheek, vanilla chocolate souffle, all with wine pairings, and a requisite glass of crisp champagne.
Folly Beach is hosting the annual Flip Flop Drop and Fireworks Show, where Center Street is closed to traffic so pedestrians can watch the displays in the sky while meandering in their flip flops and beach attire. The next day, there’s a Bill Murray Look-a-like Polar Bear Plunge, (the 8th annual installment) with awards for Best Girl, Guy, Kid, and overall Bill Murray. Anyone can participate in the plunge!
Lowcountry people love an oyster roast, especially in the cold months, and there’s nothing better than a New Year’s roast with friends around marsh side outdoor tables with plenty of sweet tea, cold beer, and fresh oysters slurped up freshly boiled with a side of cocktail sauce. It’s a messy but fun local tradition, and if you’re new to the area and aren’t ready to host a roast, Bowen’s restaurant on James Island has a New Years roast, and Boone Hall Plantation hosts the Lowcountry Oyster Festival, with 80,000 pounds of oysters at the ready, in early January.
- Cait Przetak. “The History behind our Lowcountry New Years Eve Cuisine and Traditions.” Channel 2. December 2021. https://www.counton2.com/news/latest-news/the-history-behind-our-lowcountry-new-years-eve-cuisine-and-traditions/
- Heather L. Hodges. “Freedom’s Evening.” https://www.africanamericancharleston.com/articles/freedoms-eve-celebrating-a-gullah-geechee-tradition/
- John Dabney. The Food, Folklore, and Art of Lowcountry Cooking: a celebration of the foods, history, and romance handed down from England, Africa, the Caribbean, France, Germany, and Scotland. Cumberland House Press, 2010.
- Dale Rosengarten. “Jews.” South Carolina Encyclopedia. https://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/jews/
- Liz Foster. “Kwanzaa is Here.” Post and Courier. 26 December 2019.
- News and Courier. “Celebration of Kwanzaa.” 29 December 1988.
- City Gazette. 19 October 1792.
- News and Courier. 25 December 1899. “The Feast of Hannukah.”