Steve Roud is an expert on folklore and superstition and co-author of the Oxford Dictionary of British Folklore. He lives in Maresfield, East Sussex.
Have you ever avoided walking under a ladder, or thrown salt over your shoulder? Most of us are superstitious in some way – but how have these strange and wonderful habits evolved? The New Year is a time when many superstitions are abound, from first footings to 'letting' in the New Year, take a look at the customs below!
Have a great New Year
The importance of beginnings is one of the fundamental principles of superstition in Britain and Ireland. Beliefs cluster round the beginning of the day, of a journey, of spring, of a marriage, of a life, and so on. The New Year is an obvious addition to this list, and is still regarded as a key turning-point, even by those who claim to be non–superstitious. The feeling of a new beginning pervades our cultural and personal responses to the season. As Pliny asked, nearly 2000 years ago, ‘Why on the first day of the year do we wish one another cheerfully a happy and prosperous new year?’ (Natural History (AD 77)).
The character of the coming twelve months, for good or bad fortune, is foretold by the appearance of things on the morning of the new year. A trivial mishap, or the slightest instance of good luck, has now more than its usual significance, inasmuch as it predicts, in a general way, the course of events through the coming year.
It is not easy to reach an accurate synthesis of New year beliefs and customs in the past. While underlying principles are remarkably constant, details vary considerably across Britain and Ireland, and even in a single county there could be sharp disagreement over essential details such as the preferred colour of the hair for the ‘first-footer’. Confusion also reigns over nomenclature. The generic term ‘letting’ or ‘bringing’ in the New Year can cover a variety of activities designed to mark the turn of the year, and ‘first footing’ in Scotland could mean the New Year custom of the first person to enter the house, or the first person met – at any time of year – in the morning or at the start of a journey.
First footing at New Year
First footing is regarded as the archetypal Scottish custom but in fact it was previously common in England and parts of Wales as well. Nevertheless, it was certainly taken more seriously in Scotland than elsewhere and continued to operate there while virtually dying out in other parts. The basic tenet of the custom is that the first person who enters the house in the New Year brings either good or bad luck for the next twelve months, depending on whether or not s/he conforms to the local idea of being ‘lucky’, and whether s/he performs the expected tasks. Each community had its own rules for the custom, and these varied widely, within a basic broad format. Indeed, it seems to be the case that many households had their own individual ways of proceeding, but the long-term trend has definitely been towards homogeneity.
Elements of the first-footing custom can be assigned to one of four main categories: (1) positive personal characteristics of the first-footer which were sought after; (2) negative personal attributes, which should be avoided; (3) symbolic gifts which were carried into the house; and (4) symbolic actions carried out by him/her, or the occupants of the house.
Most accounts stress some physical aspect of the first-footer, and the modern positive stereotype is a ‘tall dark-haired man’, but this was not always the case. Dark hair is definitely the most often quoted attribute, but it was certainly not universal, even in Scotland, and a small minority of descriptions even say a fair or red-haired man was preferred. Despite the wide variety of acceptable or desirable physical attributes, almost all agree that a woman would be bad luck. Some sources indicate ambivalence, or at least differing views on this question:
In most places throughout West Wales, even at the present day, people are very particular as to whether they see a man or a woman the first thing on New Year's morning. Mr. Williams in his 'Llen-Gwerin Sir Gaerfyrddin' says that in parts of Carmarthenshire in order to secure future luck or success during the coming year, a man must see a woman and a woman a man. And the Rev. N. Thomas, Vicar of Llanbadarn Fawr, informed me that he has met people in his parish who consider it lucky to see a woman first. As a rule, however, the majority of people both men and women deem in lucky to see a man, but unlucky to see a woman.
The seriousness with which some householders took this matter is demonstrated in many accounts of specific instances, such as the following extract reporting a case at Mansfield Police Court. A man was charged with assaulting a young woman on New Year’s day, and an explanation for her being out of doors at the time was given:
The young woman attended the midnight service at the parish church, and returned home a few minutes past twelve o’clock; but the mother, believing in the superstition that it is unlucky for a female to enter the house on New Year’s morning before a man, told the daughter that neither her father nor brother had yet come home, and she was to wait until they came to enter the house first. The girl, in consequence, went for a stroll, the morning being moonlight, and returned to the house five times, but, as her father and brother had not returned, the mother kept the door locked. For the sixth time she went for a walk along the streets, this being about a quarter to one o’clock, when the prisoner met and assaulted her.
Apart from colour of hair and sex, other negative characteristics of the first-footer are extremely numerous. A representative list given by Mrs. Macleod Banks (British Calendar Customs: Scotland Vol.2 (1939), taken from a variety of late nineteenth century Scottish sources, includes people who are: pious and sanctimonious; flat-footed; stingy; lame; with a blind eye; midwives; ministers; doctors; gravediggers; thieves; one who had met with an accident on the way; persons carrying a knife or a pointed tool; people with bare feet, and so on. Despite the apparently bewildering variety of attributes to avoid, the underlying principles are clear. The first-footer must be whole, socially-acceptable, and lucky, to guarantee those desirable qualities for the house for the forthcoming year.
The next key point of first footing is that the person must not arrive empty-handed. The overwhelming importance of bringing something into the house before anything is taken out at this season is treated below, and as the first person to enter, the first-footer must be careful not to break this rule. A wide variety of items were brought, but most of them carried symbolic weight by being staples of life such as food, drink, heat, or light. The first-footer’s symbolic actions are not always recorded, but in many cases there were set things that he should do. They nearly always have to wish everyone a happy New Year, sometimes have to cut a special cake, stir the fire, or visit every room in the house. Some households stipulate that the first-footer should enter by the front door and leave by the back, which is directly opposed to how it would be at other times of the year.
Few people left the matter to chance, and most householders who believed in the custom arranged beforehand with someone who fitted the ideal to come along soon after midnight. Some accounts show that people as well as houses could be ’first footed’:
The old folk go off to bed but many of the young ones will not be there for hours yet. Each girl is expecting the first-foot from her sweetheart, and anxious to be the first to open the door to him, and many a quiet stratagem is sometimes spent in the endeavour to outwit her, and get the old grandmother, or some dooce serving-lass to be the first to met the kiss-expecting lover. Quieter folks will put off their first footing until morning, but in nearly all Scottish families the first-foot is looked upon as a matter of no little importance, and notes will be compared among the neighbours in country villages as to who was their first-foot-luck or ill-luck, according to the character of the visitor.
Scotland All the Year Round (31 Dec 1870)
The biggest mystery about New Year first-footing is that it cannot be traced before the mid-nineteenth century, and even if we allow some earlier references which refer to similar first-foot customs on Christmas Day, the documentary record still only reaches back to about 1804/5. It is not at all unusual for calendar customs to turn out to be much more recent than they had always been assumed to be, but given its popularity and wide geographical distribution it is surprising that earlier descriptions have not been found. The central motif of good/bad luck being predicted by a person met in the morning or the start of a journey certainly goes back much further, and a tentative suggestion is that the New Year custom was simply a specialised version of the former belief, which was later incorporated into a calendar custom.
The geographical distribution is interesting, but the evidence is not conclusive. It is clear that first-footing was strongest in Scotland and northern England – particularly Yorkshire and Lancashire - but Ireland hardly appears in the documentary record at all. Nevertheless, of the five references so far found from before 1850, two are from Scotland, two from Herefordshire, and one from the Isle of Man.
Letting in the New Year
In many homes, the central symbolic focus of the turning of the year took the form of physical steps to ‘let the New Year in’. In most cases it was simply a question of opening doors or windows:
As the clock struck twelve, it was customary to open the back door first, to let the old year out; then, the front door was opened, to let the New year in.
The deep-felt need to set a good precedent which underlies many of the superstitions of the day is manifest in a concern about inward and outward flow of concrete items which symbolise such intangibles as luck and prosperity. There was a widespread feeling that nothing should be taken out of the house before something was brought in. This is the one of the main points of many versions of first footing, but where that custom does not take place, or where householders felt in need of even more assurance, further steps had to be taken to ensure the balance of incomings and outgoings remained firmly in favour of the former. For some, this idea was confined to certain symbolic staples such as money, but many people took the principle to its logical conclusion and forbade all outgoings, however mundane:
I remember accompanying the mistress of the house to her kitchen on New Year’s Eve, when she called together all her servants, and warned them, under pain of dismissal, not to allow anything to be carried out of the house on the following day, though they might bring in as much as they pleased. Acting on this order, all ashes, dish-washings, or potato-parings, and so forth, were retained in the house till the next day, while coals, potatoes, firewood, and bread were brought in as usual, the mistress keeping a sharp look-out on the fulfilment of her orders.
Northern England (1866)
Particular concern focused on fire:
If any householder’s fire does not burn through the night of New Year’s Eve, it betokens bad luck during the ensuing year; and if any party allow another a live coal, or even a lighted candle, on such an occasion, the bad luck is extended to the other party for commiserating with the former in his misfortunes.
The heightened feeling of New Year as specially powerful beginning is manifest in the idea that whatever your situation or main occupation at that time will dominate your life for the next twelve months. So, for example, people tried to be active and happy, to wear new clothes, and so on, on the day.
New Year’s Day was one of several days in the year when washing was prohibited in many households, for fear it would cause a death in the family:
On New Year’s day one of our maids (not a Devonshire one) was going to do the family washing, when our West-country girl exclaimed in horror
Pray don’t ‘ee wash on New Year’s day
Or you’ll wash one of the family away
Reported examples of this superstition are overwhelmingly from southern England, with a particular concentration in the West Country, but it was also believed in fishing families elsewhere in the country. In common with the other major New Year superstitions, there is no indication that this fear of washing is older than the mid-nineteenth century, and indeed it seems to have been most widespread in the twentieth.
Collecting water on New Year’s Day
A firm conviction that the special character of New Year’s Day will be reflected in the natural world, led to a range of customs based on the first water collected on that day. The most widespread of these, variously known as the cream, flower, crop, or ream of the well, held that whoever succeeded in getting the first water from any well would be lucky in some way – usually in love:
The maiden who, on New Year's morning, first draws a pailful of water from the village well is accounted singularly fortunate. She has, in truth, secured the 'flower o' the well', and will be happy for the succeeding year. The lassies often sing this couplet:
The flower o' the well to our howse gaes
And the bonniest lad'll be mine.
The custom was almost exclusively confined to females and in some versions the water had similar cosmetic qualities to May dew. The earliest clear reference to it appears in one of the Rev. James Nicol’s Scottish poems in 1804, with lines very similar to the Caithness example quoted above, but long before that, the West-Country poet Robert Herrick may have referred to the idea in 1648 when he wrote that ‘Perilla’ should ‘bring Part of the creame from that Religious Spring’ to wash his body after death.
Have you ever avoided singing carols in the summer, or worried about what plants are ok to use through Christmas? Most of us are superstitious in some way and some more so over the Christmas period – but how have these weird and wonderful habits evolved? Discover all of the answers in Steve Roud’s fascinating new pocket guide to superstitions, A Pocket Guide to Superstitions of the British Isles. Here are a few superstitious facts to ensure you have a great festive season!
All seasonal festivals attract superstitions, which usually focus on whatever elements are considered particularly special to the season. So, for example, the singing of carols being fundamental to the Christmas season, many people believed that it was unlucky to sing them at any other time. Christmas has been one of the most popular festivals in calendar for a long time, so it is no surprise that it has had more than its fair share of beliefs, and those which are still widely known concentrate on decorations and seasonal food.
The main areas in which belief comes to the fore in respect of Christmas decorations are: (1) which plants can be used and which, if any, forbidden; (2) when the decorations are put up; (3) when they are taken down; (4) what happens to them then, and the key question in the past was whether they should be burnt or not. The term ‘Christmas decorations’ here refers solely to evergreens and other plants. Artificial decorations were not introduced until late Victorian times, and do not seem to have gathered any beliefs of their own.
Holly and ivy have been the mainstay of Christmas decoration for church use since at least the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when they are mentioned regularly in churchwardens’ accounts, but many of the specific traditions about them are only found in much later accounts:
It depends upon the kind of holly that comes into a house at Christmas which shall be master during the coming year, the wife or the husband. If the holly is smooth the wife will be master, if the holly is prickly, the husband will be the master. It is considered very unlucky for a house unless some mistletoe is brought in at Christmas.
In decorating the house with evergreens at Christmas, care must be taken not to let ivy be used alone, or even predominate, as it is a plant of bad omen, and will prove injurious.
Throughout the historical record, other plants are also mentioned, including laurel, box, bay, rosemary, and mistletoe. There is no indication that any particular plant was deliberately avoided, until the constant reiteration in recent times of dubious notions of sacredness and Druid connections of mistletoe led to people questioning its inclusion. Some even claim that it was historically banned from sacred buildings.
The only genuine belief about mistletoe is that anyone who stands under it cannot refuse to be kissed. This was already widespread in the early nineteenth century, as John Brand (1813), Washington Irving (1820), and John Clare (1827) all describe it in their works:
The shepherd now no more afraid,
Since custom doth the chance bestow,
Starts up to kiss the giggling maid
Beneath the branch of mistletoe
That ‘neath each cottage beam is seen,
John Clare, Shepherd’s Calendar (1827)
And it has continued to the present day. It has been suggested that this is a survival of a classical belief recorded by Pliny (AD 77) that mistletoe promotes conception in females if they carry a piece with them, but it is difficult to see how this survived the intervening 1800 years without being noticed elsewhere, unless it was re-introduced to British tradition directly by translation of Pliny’s works.
As regards the correct time for putting up and taking down decorations, there is little similarity between the present-day and previous era, the broad picture is one of major change a little over a century ago. Before that time decorations were put up just before Christmas (usually Christmas Eve), and left there for some time afterwards (often into February). Nowadays, they are put up some time before Christmas Day, but are taken down soon after (usually by Twelfth Night). In modern Britain, most people put up their decorations about a fortnight to a week before Christmas Day, although public displays are usually in place around the 1st of December. Few people would now wait until Christmas Eve, but in the past many believed that it was extremely unlucky to bring evergreens into the house before that date.
Early in December 1905, I was carrying some fine holly through Chelford, and a group of women in the street commented on the ill-luck that would follow my taking it into the house before Christmas day.
Although fairly generally reported, we have no evidence that this concern over timing existed before the 1870s, and it certainly does not prevail widely nowadays. Similarly, the norm for modern Christmas decorations is that they have to be removed on or before Twelfth Night, but for previous generations by far the most common time was Candlemas Day (2 Feb). This had been so at least since the mid-seventeenth century. Robert Herrick alluded to Candlemas several times in his poems, including the famous lines:
Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the baies, and misletoe;
Down with the holly, ivie, all,
Wherewith ye drest the Christmas hall.
Robert Herrick ‘Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve’ (1648)
Candlemas was being named as the proper time by some informants right up the turn of the twentieth century. It demonstrates the power of contemporary custom that most people nowadays would recoil in horror from any suggestion that their Christmas decorations should stay up until February.
If every scrap of Christmas decoration is not removed from the church before Candlemas-Day, there will be a death within a year in the family occupying the pew where a leaf or berry is left.
There was also a sharp disagreement between those who believed that the plants should then be burnt and those who insisted they should not. Both sides maintained it would be dreadfully bad luck not to follow their rule, but there is no discernible geographical pattern to explain the different views on burning. The chronological spread is perhaps more telling. The earliest anti-burning piece dates only from 1866, but there are references which support burning right back to the eleventh century. On this evidence, it would seem that burning the Christmas evergreens was the norm until quite late in the nineteenth century.
There is a distinct tendency for food which is customary at particular festivals to develop connotations of luck, and this is particularly true of Christmas puddings and mince pies:
Mince pies, too, have their own magic; if you eat twelve of them, from twelve separate friends, during the twelve days of Christmas, you are promised a lucky twelve months to follow.
The ‘twelve separate friends’ is more usually given as ‘twelve different houses’ – presumably it would be too easy to eat twelve in one house. This notion was widespread across England in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it has not been found before the 1850s. This was the period when Christmas was being drastically remodelled, and it is quite possible that it was a new fancy of the time. There is still a vague feeling in many people’s minds that one should not refuse a mince pie at Christmas, and the saying still is quoted regularly as an excuse for mild festive over-eating.
The custom of getting everyone in the household to stir the Christmas cake or pudding mix, at least in token terms, is still well known and widely practised.
When I was a child in the 1940s, we all had to help to make the Christmas cake; Mother used a large yellow mixing bowl and a big wooden spoon. We were called into the kitchen and had to stand on a chair to reach the bowl. You had to close your eyes and stir the mixture round three times, then you made a wish for what you wanted Santa to bring.
As with other Christmas food beliefs, this one is not recorded before the mid-Victorian era.
Holy Innocents' Day (28 December)
In the Christian churches, Holy Innocents, or Childermas, is dedicated to the first-born children massacred by Herod (Matthew 2:1-18). To commemorate that awful event, the day was a ‘dismal’ day, with muffled peals of bells and, despite falling within the twelve days of Christmas, with a subdued and penitential air. This official religious background is reflected in superstitions surrounding the day, which was generally considered very unlucky. If anything was started on the day, it would never be finished or would go disastrously wrong, fishermen refused to leave harbour, and, in the home, no major housework was attempted, and in particular no washing done. The latter would be certain to result in a death in the family.
Not only was the day itself unlucky, but the day of the week on which it fell would also be unlucky for the coming year, and in some communities that day would be referred to as a ‘cross’ day all year. The earliest references are from the early seventeenth century, with Carew’s description of Cornwall in 1602, and Melton’s attack on superstitions in his Astrologaster:
Here’s wishing you good luck
Have you ever avoided walking under a ladder, or thrown salt over your shoulder? I think most of us are superstitious in some way – but how have these strange habits evolved? Discover all of the answers in Steve Roud’s fascinating pocket guide to superstitions. In the meantime, here are a few superstitious tips to ensure you have a good day!
It is lucky to put your clothes on inside out as long as it’s done as an accident and is not rectified when discovered
In a meeting:
It is unlucky to shake hands across a table
On a tea break:
Bubbles on the top of tea means that money is coming to you
Leaving work for the day:
It is unlucky to say goodbye more than once when parting from someone
Putting your hands in water in which eggs have been boiled will give you warts
It is bad luck to spill salt, but this can be averted by throwing it into the eyes of the devil who sits on your left shoulder
Going to bed:
Beds should be in line with the floorboards for a good nights sleep
Best of luck…
- Horseshoes that are found by the owner have ten times the power of those acquired in other ways
- To break a looking-glass is extremely unlucky
- To see three white butterflies is lucky
- If you are sweeping, and come across a web, don’t destroy it till the spider is safe
- Magpies – one for sorrow, two for joy
- A black cat passing a window for tells the arrival of a visitor
- To be guilty of selling bees is a grievous omen indeed
- Married in white, you have chosen all right.