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New Year’s Eve Folklore

I usually spend New Year’s Eve at a friends home with champagne and a television set tuned to watch the ball drop.  I have a good friend though, who always starts popping a bag of popcorn during the last minute of the year, so that it finishes in the new year, claiming eating the “year old” popcorn is good luck.  Curious what other traditions people have I searched Oxford Reference Online which led me to A Dictionary of English Folklore, and this fascinating entry on folk traditions.

…For most English people, New Year’s Eve is either spent quietly at home, or at a party, which lasts till after midnight to ‘see the New Year in’. Such gatherings differ little from other parties, apart from the ubiquitous singing of ‘Auld Lang Syne’…The only other regular features of the season are the ubiquitous salutations of ‘Happy New Year’ and the tendency to make personal ‘New Year resolutions’. Nevertheless, there is a general awareness in England that New Year is really the Scottish celebration par excellence.

In earlier times, the season was taken more seriously. Many of the following superstitions and customs can be seen in the light of the principle that the beginning of any enterprise or period is vitally important, and largely determines its relative success or failure. The literature on New Year in the past is dominated by the custom of ‘first footing’ or ‘letting in the New Year’. Again this custom is nowadays associated mainly with Scotland, but in the 19th century it was known and practised over most of England as well, although clearly taken more seriously in the northern countries. In broad outline…—the first person to come into the house after midnight on New Year’s Eve had to have certain personal characteristics and to conform to certain rules in order to bring luck to the house for the coming year. The details of the custom, however, vary considerably from place to place, and there seems to be no discernible pattern. In most places the first footer must be dark haired, or dark skinned, but some insisted on a fair haired or light complexion. Almost invariably, a male first footer was required, and some stipulated a married man while others required a bachelor, while some say flat-footed or cross-eyed people must be avoided. It was common for the first-footer to carry symbolic gifts—bread and coal being the most common commodities, but whiskey, and ‘something green’ (i.e. alive) were also popular. In some areas, the first-footer was called the ‘Lucky Bird’. On entering, the first-footer would sometimes remain silent until he had poked the fire, or had placed coal on it, and several references maintain that he should enter by the front and leave by the back door…In almost all cases the first-footer was rewarded with food, drink, and/or money, and people who fitted the local ideal for first-footer often made a substantial sum by going from house to house (by arrangement) early on New Year’s Day. The seriousness with which some people took the first-foot rules is evidenced in various sources, such as the following reported in N&Q (7s:10 (1890), 5): reporting on a trial in Mansfield (Nottinghamshire), and explaining why a young woman was walking the streets at one o’clock in the morning, it was stated that she had returned from the midnight service at her local church but her mother would not let her into the house until her father or brother came in first, which was some hours later…

Most of the customs already discussed cannot be shown to be very old, and the picture of New Year before the 19th century was very different indeed. Despite its ubiquity, neither the phrase nor the custom of first footing can be traced before the turn of the 19th century—even in Scotland—and most of the other beliefs detailed above are not found before the 1850s. As is well known, the name for the New Year in Scotland is Hogmanay, and this, in various spellings such as Hagmena, was also the regular terms in northern England and the earliest use of the word so far discovered is in Yorkshire. An entry in the household accounts of Sir Robert Waterton, of Methley, in 1444, records payments for a big ‘hogmanayse’ and a little ‘hogmanayse’. The entry is all in Latin apart from that word… The OED, after admitting that the word is ‘of obscure history’, proffers an Old French word, aguillanneuf, as a probable source, meaning ‘the last day of the year, new year’s gift, the festival at which new year’s gifts were given and asked with the shout of aguillanneuf’, which almost exactly fits the descriptions of New Year between the 15th and 17th centuries, where the emphasis is on gifts and visiting. The oldest references to gift-giving at New Year refer to royalty and nobility exchanging expensive presents, as far back as the time of Henry III…and up to Elizabeth I…More modest traditional gifts were oranges stuck with cloves, gilded nutmegs, capons (from tenant farmers to landlords), various other foodstuffs, and papers of pins. The earlier visiting custom is again mostly reported from Scotland, but again it is clear that it was also common in northern England. It consisted of bands of young men (later children) going from door to door on New Year’s Eve, singing and expecting gifts…

The fact that Scotland and England have different views of the relative importance of Christmas and New Year is the result of the divergence of religion during the Puritan revolutions of the 17th century. As is well known, the gradual increase in influence and power of ‘Puritan’ Protestant sects across much of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries brought increasing pressure on saints’ days and other festivals which were branded as Catholic inventions. Christmas was thus increasingly discouraged and finally banned altogether in England in 1645. At a popular level, there was thus a tendency for people to transfer their celebrations from the dangerous Christmas to the secular New Year. At the Restoration, Christmas was reinstated, only to be removed again in Scotland, by the Kirk, in 1688–90. The stage was thus set for the two countries to go their own way, and Scottish people made New Year their main midwinter festival.

Details of New Year celebrations up to medieval times are sketchy, although if the Church condemnations are to be believed the people certainly indulged in some sort of behaviour which offended ecclesiastical sensibilities. The upper echelons of society had New Year feasts, although, as noticed in the entry for Christmas, there was a strong tradition of the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ and it is thus not always easy to separate Christmas and New Year. Reading between the lines, the main thrust of the Church’s disquiet was concerned with divination…which, as already stated, would be a logical thing to be doing at the start of a New Year. Beyond this the picture is even more speculative, but ‘… there is sufficient to argue strongly for the existence of a major pre-Christian festival marking the opening of the new year, at the moment at which the sun had reached the winter solstice, and its strength was being renewed. There is testimony to this in the Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Welsh components of the British heritage’…, but what they did is still open to debate.

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  4. […] is a pretty bizarre New Year's Eve myth, but apparently in Scottish and Northern English folklore the first person you let walk into your house in the new year will influence the entirety of 2014. […]

  5. Angie Hewitt

    This is fascinating. I have just written my own blog post about my New Years tradition and wondering where it came from. I’m still yet to find reference to it. But I love the folklores here. Thank you.

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