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First Foot Forward: New Year’s customs and manners

First Foot Forward: New Year's customs and manners

Unlike in the current day, when New Year’s Eve has developed into an occasion to test the properties of alcohol as an emetic, in the Victorian era, New Year’s Eve celebrations tended to be more musical than alcoholic in nature, although as the century progressed, there is evidence of rather less genteel behaviour being exhibited at public gatherings. The fact that Church authorities at St Paul’s in London decided against continuing the tradition of bell-ringing at midnight suggests that the crowds had become less interested in quiet enjoyment than in raucous entertainments.

It should be noted that crowds continued to gather, perhaps replacing the sound of the bells with musical entertainments of their own, although whether they featured traditional New Year’s carols, or versions of Eskimo Nell, history does not divulge. Let us imagine hearty and wholesome folk tunes, then, like the following:

To-night it is the New Year’s night, to-morrow is the day
And we have come for our right and for our ray
As we used to do in King Henry’s day
Sing, fellows, sing Hagmen heigh!

New Year’s (charmingly known as Hogmanay, or even more charmingly as Hegmena, in Scotland) was a quintessentially Scottish celebration; the passion for all things Scottish (including, but not limited to Mr Brown) cultivated by the Queen and passed on as a fashion to her subjects, is suggested as one of the reasons for the rise in popularity in New Year’s celebrations across the Empire. In earlier eras, New Year’s was the time for gift giving and the payment and rewarding of loyal servants and subjects. Court records as far back as Edward III document New Years gifts both given and received by the sovereign.

This custom of New Year’s gifts was still common in Victorian times; tied to it is the idea that something must enter the house on New Year’s Day before anything leaves it. Traditional gifts were often symbolic of prosperity in the coming year – bread, salt and coal, perhaps a green branch or plant (perhaps symbolising health and growth), and whiskey.

The first person across the threshold on that day should bring a such a gift, and no cheating, such as having a party guest go outside and then come in again after the stroke of midnight. The identity (or perhaps more accurately, the characteristics) of the first person across the threshold were the subject of a number of folk customs, or superstitions.

Victorians, keen navel-gazers and collectors of folk trivia, wrote, in response to a call for information about First Foot customs and superstitions in Folklore, and the results of the correspondence were summarized in a table by John Rhys and T.W.E Higgins in the June 1892 edition. Although customs do vary widely from region to region, it is safe to say that a flat-footed bearded red-headed woman would be unlikely to receive any invitations for January 1.

In some rural areas, this tradition was taken so seriously that newspapers reported women wandering the streets at all hours after midnight, being forced to wait until their fathers or brothers came home before they were allowed to cross the threshold.

Interestingly, while the table and the strict observance of the custom of the First Foot might lead readers to infer it was a medieval or ancient tradition, it is actually traceable only to 1850 or so, making it an authentically Victorian practice.

New Year’s gifts traditionally exchanged after the first foot were often symbolic of wealth: gilded nutmegs, oranges stuck with cloves, and papers of pins all have clear connections to money and coins. Another tradition tied to the idea of promoting prosperity in the coming year included the belief that a person, no matter how young, should have money in his or her pocket on New Year’s day, or risk poverty.

Among the things that were unlucky on the first day of the year were throwing out ashes (the hearth should be cleaned before midnight on the 31st, so that a new fire could be laid), doing laundry specifically (presumably because this required the throwing out of dirty water), or any kind of work in general. Also unlucky was having the fire leave the house, either in the form of a lantern or candle being carried out, or having the fire in the stove or hearth go out.

The idea of one’s actions at the turn of the year setting the course for the next 12 months seems to be deeply ingrained into many of these traditions and beliefs. It is interesting to think about how they appear to have evolved into a practice of determining one’s own actions by making resolutions. Victorians focussed more on predicting events to come than resolving to shape them. Divination games, like reading ashes or tea leaves, were popular, as was the practice of “dipping” into the Bible to find a verse that would predict the course of the new year.

Another predictive tradition is that whatever one is doing at the time the bells chime midnight, is what one will be doing for the most part of the new year; this is no doubt in part responsible for the tradition of staying up at least until midnight – lying in bed might predict illness or incapacity.

So, perhaps rather than resolving to read more improving literature, drink less and exercise more, one should ring in the new year while simultaneously reading and riding an exercise bicycle and drinking water.