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Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, by Clement A. Miles, [1912], at



Principle of New Year Customs—The New Year in France, Germany, the United States, and Eastern Europe—“First-footing” in Great Britain—Scottish New Year Practices—Highland Fumigation and “Breast-strip” Customs—Hogmanay and Aguillanneuf—New Year Processions in Macedonia, Roumania, Greece, and Rome—Methods of Augury—Sundry New Year Charms.

Coming to January 1, the modern and the Roman New Year's Day, we shall find that most of its customs have been anticipated at earlier festivals; the Roman Kalends practices have often been shifted to Christmas, while old Celtic and Teutonic New Year practices have frequently been transferred to the Roman date. 113

The observances of New Year's Day mainly rest, as was said in  VI, on the principle that “a good beginning makes a good ending,” that as the first day is so will the rest be. If you would have plenty to eat during the year, dine lavishly on New Year's Day, if you would be rich see that your pockets are not empty at this critical season, if you would be lucky avoid like poison at this of all times everything of ill omen.

“On the Borders,” says Mr. W. Henderson, “care is taken that no one enters a house empty-handed on New Year's Day. A visitor must bring in his hand some eatable; he will be doubly welcome if he carries in a hot stoup or ‘plotie.’ Everybody p. 322 should wear a new dress on New Year's Day, and if its pockets contain money of every description they will be certain not to be empty throughout the year.” 16-2

The laying of stress on what happens on New Year's Day is by no means peculiarly European. Hindus, for instance, as Mr. Edgar Thurston tells us, “are very particular about catching sight of some auspicious object on the morning of New Year's Day, as the effects of omens seen on that occasion are believed to last throughout the year.” It is thought that a man's whole prosperity depends upon the things that he then happens to fix his eyes upon. 16-3

Charms, omens, and good wishes are naturally the most prominent customs of January 1 and its Eve. The New Year in England can hardly be called a popular festival; there is no public holiday and the occasion is more associated with penitential Watch Night services and good resolutions than with rejoicing. But let the reader, if he be in London, pay a visit to Soho at this time, and he will get some idea of what the New Year means to the foreigner. The little restaurants are decorated with gay festoons of all colours and thronged with merrymakers, the shop-windows are crowded with all manner of recherché delicacies; it is the gala season of the year.

In France January 1 is a far more festal day than Christmas; it is then that presents are given, family gatherings held, and calls paid. In the morning children find their stockings filled with gifts, and then rush off to offer good wishes to their parents. In the afternoon the younger people call upon their older relations, and in the evening all meet for dinner at the home of the head of the family. 16-4

In Germany the New Year is a time of great importance. Cards are far more numerous than at Christmas, and “New Year boxes” are given to the tradespeople, while on the Eve (Sylvesterabend) there are dances or parties, the custom of forecasting the future by lead-pouring is practised, and at the stroke of midnight there is a general cry of “Prosit Neu Jahr!”, a drinking of healths, and a shaking of hands. 16-5

New Year wishes and “compliments of the season” are p. 323 familiar to us all, but in England we have not that custom of paying formal calls which in France is so characteristic of January 1, when not only relations and personal friends, but people whose connection is purely official are expected to visit one another. In devout Brittany the wish exchanged takes a beautiful religious form—“I wish you a good year and Paradise at the end of your days.” 16-6

New Year calling is by no means confined to France. In the United States it is one of the few traces left by the early Dutch settlers on American manners. The custom is now rapidly falling into disuse, 16-7 but in New York up to the middle of the nineteenth century “New Year's Day was devoted to the universal interchange of visits. Every door was thrown wide open. It was a breach of etiquette to omit any acquaintance in these annual calls, when old friendships were renewed and family differences amicably settled. A hearty welcome was extended even to strangers of presentable appearance.” At that time the day was marked by tremendous eating and drinking, and its visiting customs sometimes developed into wild riot. Young men in barouches would rattle from one house to another all day long. “The ceremony of calling was a burlesque. There was a noisy and hilarious greeting, a glass of wine was swallowed hurriedly, everybody shook hands all round, and the callers dashed out and rushed into the carriage and were driven rapidly to the next house.” 16-8

The New Year calling to offer good wishes resembles in some respects the widespread custom of “first-footing,” based on the belief that the character of the first visitor on New Year's Day affects the welfare of the household during the year. We have already met with a “first-foot” in the polaznik of the southern Slavs on Christmas Day. It is to be borne in mind that for them, or at all events for the Crivoscian highlanders whose customs are described by Sir Arthur Evans, Christmas is essentially the festival of the New Year: New Year's Day is not spoken of at all, its name and ceremonies being completely absorbed by the feasts of “Great” and “Little” Christmas. 16-9

The “first-foot” superstition is found in countries as far apart as p. 324 Scotland and Macedonia. Let us begin with some English examples of it. In Shropshire the most important principle is that if luck is to rest on a house the “first-foot” must not be a woman. To provide against such an unlucky accident as that a woman should call first, people often engage a friendly man or boy to pay them an early visit. It is particularly interesting to find a Shropshire parallel to the polaznik's action in going straight to the hearth and striking sparks from the Christmas log, 114 when Miss Burne tells us that one old man who used to “let the New Year in” “always entered without knocking or speaking, and silently stirred the fire before he offered any greeting to the family.” 16-10

In the villages of the Teme valley, Worcestershire and Herefordshire, “in the old climbing-boy days, chimneys used to be swept on New Year's morning, that one of the right sex should be the first to enter; and the young urchins of the neighbourhood went the round of the houses before daylight singing songs, when one of their number would be admitted into the kitchen ‘for good luck all the year.’” In 1875 this custom was still practised; and at some of the farmhouses, if washing-day chanced to fall on the first day of the year, it was either put off, or to make sure, before the women could come, the waggoner's lad was called up early that he might be let out and let in again. 16-11

The idea of the unluckiness of a woman's being the “first-foot” is extraordinarily widespread; the present writer has met with it in an ordinary London restaurant, where great stress was laid upon a man's opening the place on New Year's morning before the waitresses arrived. A similar belief is found even in far-away China: it is there unlucky on New Year's Day to meet a woman on first going out. 16-12 Can the belief be connected with such ideas about dangerous influences proceeding from women as have been described by Dr. Frazer in Vol. III. of “The Golden Bough,” 16-13 or does it rest merely on a view of woman as the inferior sex? The unluckiness of first meeting a woman is, we may note, not confined to, but merely intensified on New Year's Day; in Shropshire 16-14 and in Germany 16-15 it belongs to any ordinary day.

p. 325 As to the general attitude towards woman suggested by these superstitions I may quote a striking passage from Miss Jane Harrison's “Themis.” “Woman to primitive man is a thing at once weak and magical, to be oppressed, yet feared. She is charged with powers of child-bearing denied to man, powers only half understood, forces of attraction, but also of danger and repulsion, forces that all over the world seem to fill him with dim terror. The attitude of man to woman, and, though perhaps in a less degree, of woman to man, is still to-day essentially magical.” 16-16

“First-foot” superstitions flourish in the north of England and in Scotland. In the northern counties a man is often specially retained as “first-foot” or “lucky bird”; in some parts he must be a bachelor, and he is often expected to bring a present with him—a shovelful of coals, or some eatable, or whisky. 16-17 In the East Riding of Yorkshire a boy called the “lucky bird” used to come at dawn on Christmas morning as well as on New Year's Day, and bring a sprig of evergreens 16-18 —an offering by now thoroughly familiar to us. In Scotland, especially in Edinburgh, it is customary for domestic servants to invite their sweethearts to be their “first-foots.” The old Scotch families who preserve ancient customs encourage their servants to “first-foot” them, and grandparents like their grandchildren to perform for them the same service. 16-19 In Aberdeenshire it is considered most important that the “first-foot” should not come empty-handed. Formerly he carried spiced ale; now he brings a whisky-bottle. Shortbread, oat-cakes, “sweeties,” or sowens, were also sometimes brought by the “first-foot,” and occasionally the sowens were sprinkled on the doors and windows of the houses visited—a custom strongly suggesting a sacramental significance of some sort. 16-20

Before we leave the subject of British “first-footing” we may notice one or two things that have possibly a racial significance. Not only must the “first-foot” be a man or boy, he is often required to be dark-haired; it is unlucky for a fair- or red-haired person to “let in” the New Year. 16-21 It has been suggested by Sir John Rhys that this idea rested in the first instance upon p. 326 racial antipathy—the natural antagonism of an indigenous dark-haired people to a race of blonde invaders. 16-22 Another curious requirement—in the Isle of Man and Northumberland—is that the “first-foot” shall not be flat-footed: he should be a person with a high-arched instep, a foot that “water runs under.” Sir John Rhys is inclined to connect this also with some racial contrast. He remarks, by way of illustration, that English shoes do not as a rule fit Welsh feet, being made too low in the instep. 16-23

Some reference has already been made to Scottish New Year customs. In Scotland, the most Protestant region of Europe, the country in which Puritanism abolished altogether the celebration of Christmas, New Year's Day is a great occasion, and is marked by various interesting usages, its importance being no doubt largely due to the fact that it has not to compete with the Church feast of the Nativity. Nowadays, indeed, the example of Anglicanism is affecting the country to a considerable extent, and Christmas Day is becoming observed in the churches. The New Year, however, is still the national holiday, and January 1 a great day for visiting and feasting, the chief, in fact, of all festivals. 16-24 New Year's Day and its Eve are often called the “Daft Days”; cakes and pastry of all kinds are eaten, healths are drunk, and calls are paid. 16-25

In Edinburgh there are striking scenes on New Year's Eve. “Towards evening,” writes an observer, “the thoroughfares become thronged with the youth of the city.... As the midnight hour approaches, drinking of healths becomes frequent, and some are already intoxicated.... The eyes of the immense crowd are ever being turned towards the lighted clock-face of ‘Auld and Faithful’’ Tron [Church], the hour approaches, the hands seem to stand still, but in one second more the hurrahing, the cheering, the hand-shaking, the health-drinking, is all kept up as long as the clock continues to ring out the much-longed-for midnight hour.... The crowds slowly disperse, the much-intoxicated and helpless ones being hustled about a good deal, the police urging them on out of harm's way. The first-footers are off and away, flying in every direction through the city, singing, cheering, and shaking hands with all and sundry.” 16-26

p. 327 One need hardly allude to the gathering of London Scots around St. Paul's to hear the midnight chime and welcome the New Year with the strains of “Auld Lang Syne,” except to say that times have changed and Scotsmen are now lost in the swelling multitude of roysterers of all nationalities.

Drinking is and was a great feature of the Scottish New Year's Eve. “On the approach of twelve o'clock, a hot pint was prepared—that is, a kettle or flagon full of warm, spiced, and sweetened ale, with an infusion of spirits. When the clock had struck the knell of the departed year, each member of the family drank of this mixture ‘A good health and a happy New Year and many of them’ to all the rest, with a general hand-shaking.” The elders of the family would then sally out to visit their neighbours, and exchange greetings. 16-27

At Biggar in Lanarkshire it was customary to “burn out the old year” with bonfires, while at Burghead in Morayshire a tar-barrel called the “Clavie” was set on fire and carried about the village and the fishing boats. Its embers were scrambled for by the people and carefully kept as charms against witchcraft. 16-28 These fire-customs may be compared with those on Hallowe'en, which, as we have seen, is probably an old New Year's Eve.

Stewart in his “Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland” tells how on the last night of the year the Strathdown Highlanders used to bring home great loads of juniper, which on New Year's Day was kindled in the different rooms, all apertures being closed so that the smoke might produce a thorough fumigation. Not only human beings had to stand this, but horses and other animals were treated in the same way to preserve them from harm throughout the year. Moreover, first thing on New Year's morning, everybody, while still in bed, was asperged with a large brush. 16-29 There is a great resemblance here to the Catholic use of incense and holy water in southern Germany and Austria on the Rauchnächte (see also  VIII). In Tyrol these nights are Christmas, New Year's, and Epiphany Eves. When night falls the Tyrolese peasant goes with all his household through each room and outhouse, his wife bearing the holy water vessel and the censer. Every corner of the buildings, every animal, p. 328 every human being is purified with the sacred smoke and the holy sprinkling, and even the Christmas pie must be hallowed in this way. In Orthodox Greek countries something of the same kind takes place, as we shall see, at the Epiphany. To drive away evil spirits is no doubt the object of all these rites. 16-30

The most interesting of Scottish New Year customs, considered as religious survivals, is a practice found in the Highlands on New Year's Eve, and evidently of sacrificial origin. It has been described by several writers, and has various forms. According to one account the hide of the mart or winter cow was wrapped round the head of one of a company of men, who all made off belabouring the hide with switches. The disorderly procession went three times deiseal (according to the course of the sun) round each house in the village, striking the walls and shouting on coming to a door a rhyme demanding admission. On entering, each member of the party was offered refreshments, and their leader gave to the goodman of the house the “breast-stripe” of a sheep, deer, or goat, wrapped round the point of a shinty stick. 16-31

We have here another survival of that oft-noted custom of skin-wearing, which, as has been seen, originated apparently in a desire for contact with the sanctity of the sacrificed victim. Further, the “breast-stripe” given to the goodman of each house is evidently meant to convey the hallowed influences to each family. It is an oval strip, and no knife may be used in removing it from the flesh. The head of the house sets fire to it, and it is given to each person in turn to smell. The inhaling of its fumes is a talisman against fairies, witches, and demons. In the island of South Uist, according to a quite recent account, each person seizes hold of it as it burns, making the sign of the cross, if he be a Catholic, in the name of the Trinity, and it is put thrice sun-wise about the heads of those present. If it should be extinguished it is a bad omen for the New Year. 16-32

The writer of the last account speaks of the “breast-strip” as the “Hogmanay,” and it is just possible that the well-known Hogmanay processions of children on New Year's Eve (in Scotland and elsewhere) may have some connection with the ritual above described. It is customary for the poorer children to p. 329 swaddle themselves in a great sheet, doubled up in front so as to form a vast pocket, and then go along the streets in little bands, calling out “Hogmanay” at the doors of the wealthier classes, and expecting a dole of oaten bread. Each child gets a quadrant of oat-cake (sometimes with cheese), and this is called the “Hogmanay.” Here is one of the rhymes they sing:—

“Get up, goodwife, and shake your feathers,
And dinna think that we are beggars;
For we are bairns come out to play,
Get up and gie's our hogmanay!” 16-33

The word Hogmanay—it is found in various forms in the northern English counties as well as in Scotland—has been a puzzle to etymologists. It is used both for the last day of the year and for the gift of the oaten cake or the like; and, as we have seen, it is shouted by the children in their quest. Exactly corresponding to it in sense and use is the French word aguillanneuf, from which it appears to be derived. Although the phonetic difference between this and the Scottish word is great, the Norman form hoguinané is much closer. There is, moreover, a Spanish word aguinaldo (formerly aguilando) = Christmas-box. The popular explanation of the French term as au-guy-l'an-neuf (to the mistletoe the New Year) is now rejected by scholars, and it seems likely that the word is a corruption of the Latin Kalendae. 16-34

A few instances of aguillanneuf customs may be given. Here are specimens of rhymes sung by the New Year quêteurs:—

“Si vous veniez à la dépense,
À la dépense de chez nous,
Vous mangeriez de bons choux,
On vous servirait du rost.
Donnez-moi mes hoguignettes
Dans un panier que voicy.
Je l'achetai samedy
D'un bon homme de dehors;
Mais il est encore à payer.
Hoguinano.” 16-35

p. 330 Formerly at Matignon and Ploubalay in Brittany on Christmas Eve the boys used to get together, carry big sticks and wallets, and knock at farmhouse doors. When the inmates called out, “Who's there?” they would answer, “The hoguihanneu,” and after singing something they were given a piece of lard. This was put on a pointed stick carried by one of the boys, and was kept for a feast called the bouriho. 16-36 Elsewhere in Brittany poor children went round crying “au guyané,” and were given pieces of lard or salt beef, which they stuck on a long spit. 16-37 In Guernsey the children's quest at the New Year was called oguinane. They chanted the following rhyme:—

“Oguinâni! Oguinâno!
Ouvre ta pouque, et pis la recclios.” 115 16-38

Similar processions are common in eastern Europe at the New Year. In some parts of Macedonia on New Year's Eve men or boys go about making a noise with bells. In other districts, early on New Year's morning, lads run about with sticks or clubs, knock people up, cry out good wishes, and expect to be rewarded with something to eat. Elsewhere again they carry green olive- or cornel-boughs, and touch with them everyone they meet. 16-39 We have already considered various similar customs, the noise and knocking being apparently intended to drive away evil spirits, and the green boughs to bring folks into contact with the spirit of growth therein immanent.

In Roumania on New Year's Eve there is a custom known as the “little plough.” Boys and men go about after dark from house to house, with long greetings, ringing of bells, and cracking of whips. On New Year's morning Roumanians throw handfuls of corn at one another with some appropriate greeting, such as:—

“May you live,
May you flourish
Like apple-trees,p. 331 
Like pear-trees
In springtime,
Like wealthy autumn,
Of all things plentiful.”

Generally this greeting is from the young to the old or from the poor to the rich, and a present in return is expected. 16-40

In Athens models of war-ships are carried round by waits, who make a collection of money in them. “St. Basil's ships” they are called, and they are supposed to represent the vessel on which St. Basil, whose feast is kept on January 1, sailed from Caesarea. 16-41 It is probable that this is but a Christian gloss on a pagan custom. Possibly there may be here a survival of an old Greek practice of bearing a ship in procession in honour of Dionysus, 16-42 but it is to be noted that similar observances are found at various seasons in countries like Germany and Belgium where no Greek influence can be traced. The custom is widespread, and it has been suggested by Mannhardt that it was originally intended either to promote the success of navigation or to carry evil spirits out to sea. 16-43

It is interesting, lastly, to read a mediaeval account of a New Year quête in Rome. “The following,” says the writer, “are common Roman sports at the Kalends of January. On the Eve of the Kalends at a late hour boys arise and carry a shield. One of them wears a mask; they whistle and beat a drum, they go round to the houses, they surround the shield, the drum sounds, and the masked figure whistles. This playing ended, they receive a present from the master of the house, whatever he thinks fit to give. So they do at every house. On that day they eat all kinds of vegetables. And in the morning two of the boys arise, take olive-branches and salt, enter into the houses, and salute the master with the words, ‘Joy and gladness be in the house, so many sons, so many little pigs, so many lambs,’ and they wish him all good things. And before the sun rises they eat either a piece of honeycomb or something sweet, that the whole year may pass sweetly, without strife and great trouble.” 16-44

Various methods of peering into the future, more or less like p. 332 those described at earlier festivals, are practised at the New Year. Especially popular at German New Year's Eve parties is the custom of bleigiessen. “This ceremony consists of boiling specially prepared pieces of lead in a spoon over a candle; each guest takes his spoonful and throws it quickly into the basin of water which is held ready. According to the form which the lead takes so will his future be in the coming year ... ships (which indicate a journey), or hearts (which have, of course, only one meaning), or some other equally significant shape is usually discerned.” 16-45

In Macedonia St. Basil's Eve (December 31) is a common time for divination: a favourite method is to lay on the hot cinders a pair of wild-olive-leaves to represent a youth and a maid. If the leaves crumple up and draw near each other, it is concluded that the young people love one another dearly, but if they recoil apart the opposite is the case. If they flare up and burn, it is a sign of excessive passion. 16-46

In Lithuania on New Year's Eve nine sorts of things—money, cradle, bread, ring, death's head, old man, old woman, ladder, and key—are baked of dough, and laid under nine plates, and every one has three grabs at them. What he gets will fall to his lot during the year. 16-47

Lastly, in Brittany it is supposed that the wind which prevails on the first twelve days of the year will blow during each of the twelve months, the first day corresponding to January, the second to February, and so on. 16-48 Similar ideas of the prophetic character of Christmastide weather are common in our own and other countries.

Practically all the customs discussed in this chapter have been of the nature of charms; one or two more, practised on New Year's Day or Eve, may be mentioned in conclusion.

There are curious superstitions about New Year water. At Bromyard in Herefordshire it was the custom, at midnight on New Year's Eve, to rush to the nearest spring to snatch the “cream of the well”—the first pitcherful of water—and with it the prospect of the best luck. 16-49 A Highland practice was to send p. 333 some one on the last night of the year to draw a pitcherful of water in silence, and without the vessel touching the ground. The water was drunk on New Year's morning as a charm against witchcraft and the evil eye. 16-50 A similar belief about the luckiness of “new water” exists at Canzano Peligno in the Abruzzi. “On New Year's Eve, the fountain is decked with leaves and bits of coloured stuff, and fires are kindled round it. As soon as it is light, the girls come as usual with their copper pots on their head; but the youths are on this morning guardians of the well, and sell the ‘new water’ for nuts and fruits—and other sweet things.” 16-51

In some of the Aegean islands when the family return from church on New Year's Day, the father picks up a stone and leaves it in the yard, with the wish that the New Year may bring with it “as much gold as is the weight of the stone.” 16-52 Finally, in Little Russia “corn sheaves are piled upon a table, and in the midst of them is set a large pie. The father of the family takes his seat behind them, and asks his children if they can see him. ‘We cannot see you,’ they reply. On which he proceeds to express what seems to be a hope that the corn will grow so high in his fields that he may be invisible to his children when he walks there at harvest-time.” 16-53

With a curious and beautiful old carol from South Wales I must bring this chapter to a close. It was formerly sung before dawn on New Year's Day by poor children who carried about a jug of water drawn that morning from the well. With a sprig of box or other evergreen they would sprinkle those they met, wishing them the compliments of the season. To pay their respects to those not abroad at so early an hour, they would serenade them with the following lines, which, while connected with the “new water” tradition, contain much that is of doubtful interpretation, and are a fascinating puzzle for folk-lorists:—

“Here we bring new water
From the well so clear,
For to worship God with,
This happy New Year.p. 334 
Sing levy-dew, sing levy-dew,
The water and the wine;
The seven bright gold wires
And the bugles they do shine.
Sing reign of Fair Maid,
With gold upon her toe,—
Open you the West Door,
And turn the Old Year go:
Sing reign of Fair Maid,
With gold upon her chin,—
Open you the East Door,
And let the New Year in.” 16-54

p. 335 p. 336 p. 337 

Next: Chapter XVI. Epiphany to Candlemas