A number of traditions formed for celebrating the new year. Some varied by region or county. Family traditions for good luck prevailed over general social convention.
Some families gathered whomever was in the house in a circle before midnight. At the stroke of midnight, the head of the family would open the door and usher out the old and welcome the new. Some who held to old superstitions went further, removing ashes, rags, scraps and anything perishable from the house so that nothing was carried over from one year to the next. In this way, they would preserve their good luck and banish any bad.
Some Scots and folks of northern England believed in ‘first footing’. The nature of the first visitor to set foot across the threshold after midnight on New Year’s eve determined the family’s fortunes.
A tall, dark, and handsome male stranger was the best omen, especially if his feet were the right shape. High-insteps implied that “water would run under”—that is bad luck would flow past. (They also tended to be more common in those who were not on their feet working all day, thus implying a higher class, wealthier visitor.)
A flat foot meant bad luck, as did women in most cases. These omens were not fully agreed upon, though. For some blonde or red-headed, bare-foot girls were bringers of good luck.
Whoever the first-footer was, they entered through the front door. Tradition held that no one spoke until the ‘first-footer’ wished the occupants a happy new year. Then the first footer would be greeted with proper ceremony and a rhyme to welcome the New Year and bring good fortune. At the end of the visit, first-footer would leave through the back door and take all the old year’s troubles and sorrows out with them.
Often the first-footer would arrive bearing traditional gifts: coin, a lump of coal, a piece of bread or shortbread, whiskey, salt and black bun—representing financial prosperity, warmth, food, good cheer and flavor in the new year.
Dark haired young men often made the rounds of the neighborhood houses, bring good luck to the homes and to themselves when they were invited in for a holiday toast.
Jan 1: New Year’s Day
The events of New Year’s Day were often considered predictors of good fortune for the next year.
One custom was to hook a flat cake on the horns of a cow. If the cake fell off in front of the cow, it foretold good luck, if behind, bad.
In Hertfordshire, at sunrise on New Year’s Day, a hawthorn bush would be burned in the fields to ensure good luck and bountiful crops. Hawthorn branches–which have a many folkloric associations–would be woven into crowns and hung in the house as well.
Creaming the Well
In some regions, young women raced to draw the first water from the well in a practice known as ‘creaming the well.’ Possession of this water meant marriage with in the coming year, particularly if the a young woman’s matrimonial desire could be made to drink some of that water before sun down.
Some believed the water had curative properties and even washed the udders of cows with it to insure productivity.
Until the 18th century, gifts were exchanged on New Year’s day instead of Christmas or Epiphany. Food, money and clothing were traditional gifts, with gloves being particularly popular.
In Scotland and the northern regions of England, traditional New Year’s (Hogmannay) foods include: shortbread, venison pie, haggis, black bun (pastry with fruit cake fillings) and rumbledethmps, a fry-up for potato, turnip, cabbage butter and cheese.
If you enjoyed this you might enjoy the scenes: Anne de Bourgh creaming the well and A First Footer at Longbourn.
A Regency Primer on Christmastide & New Year’s. Kristen Koster. 2011.
Celebrating the New Year Johanna Waugh. (2008)
Chamber, Robert. Book of Days (1862),
Regency Christmas Traditions: Hogmanay (2013)
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