Some celebrated with the family or a party gathering in a circle before midnight. At the stroke of the midnight hour, the head of the family would open the front and back doors to usher the old year out the back and welcome the new year in the front.
Some Scots and residents of northern England believed the first visitor to set foot across the threshold (the first-footer) after midnight on New Year’s Eve affected the family's fortunes. Ladies, in particular, wished for a tall, dark, and handsome male stranger without physical handicap, especially if his feet were the right shape.
High-insteps implied that water would run under—that is bad luck would flow past. A flat foot meant bad luck, as did women in most cases. Not all agreed on these omens. For some, blonde or red-headed, bare-foot girls brought good luck.
The first-footer entered through the front door, ideally, bearing traditional gifts: a coin, a lump of coal, a piece of bread or shortbread, whiskey, salt and a black bun—representing financial prosperity, warmth, food, good cheer, and flavor in the new year. Tradition held that no one spoke until the ‘first-footer’ wished the occupants a happy new year.
Once inside, the first-footer would be led through the clean home to place the coal on the fire and offer a toast to the house and all who lived there. Then the first-footer might be permitted to kiss every woman in the house. The first-footer would leave through the back door and take all the old year's troubles and sorrows.
Dark haired young men often made the rounds of the neighborhood houses, bringing good luck to the homes and to themselves when invited in for a holiday toast.
New Year’s DayA variety of traditions for New Year’s Day suggested how one might discern or influence fortunes for the coming year.
In one, a farmer hooked a large, specially baked pancake on one of a cow’s horns. Others gathered about to sing and dance around the unsuspecting bovine and encourage it to toss its head. 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, farmers burned a hawthorn bush in the fields to ensure good luck and bountiful crops.
Creaming the Well
In some regions, young women raced to draw the first water from the well, a practice known as ‘creaming the well.’ Possession of this water meant marriage within the coming year if she could get the man she desired to marry to drink the water before the end of the day.
Others believed the water had curative properties and even washed the udders of cows with it to ensure productivity.
Until the 18th century, gifts of food, money and clothing (especially gloves) were exchanged on New Year's Day instead of Christmas or Twelfth Night.
In Scotland and the northern regions of England, traditional New Year’s foods included: shortbread, venison pie, haggis, black bun (similar to mince pie) and rumbledethumps, similar to bubble and squeak or colcannon.
Darcy's Decision, The Future Mrs. Darcy, All the Appearance of Goodness, and Twelfth Night at Longbourn, Remember the Past, and Mistaking Her Character. Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, follow on Twitter or email her.