New Year’s is one of those holidays that we celebrate—sometimes with wild abandon (I’m looking at you, NYE 1999)—without thinking about the meaning of the holiday. Sure, we know we’re welcoming in a new year by making toasts with friends, watching the ball drop in Times Square, having a little champagne...but what did people used to do? How did people celebrate this holiday before Dick Clark?
We have a collection of materials on holidays and traditions that proved to be very useful, not to mention entertaining. I relied heavily on All About American Holidays for the information below.
The Scottish used to observe the custom of “first-footing,” where hosts would open their doors to friends and relatives from midnight to one o’clock. Guests were expected to bring small gifts. According to All About American Holidays, “The first guest was the most important. It was considered unlucky for a woman, a criminal, a person with a squint, or a deformity, or for a red-haired individual to come into the house first on that night” (4). This was, naturally, terrible news for the one-legged, redheaded, myopic lady thief in the village.
Making a lot of racket at the new year is designed to scare away the old year and the evil spirits associated with it. In Siam, they shot off guns to frighten the demons; in Japan, they rattled bamboo sticks; in China, they used firecrackers. Some cultures created dummies or effigies of the old year that they would burn (Scotland, Bohemia) or drown (Austria). Italy was a little more gentle and rang the church bells to scare away the witches.
As for New Year’s Day superstitions, there are several entertaining ones: in Germany, people wore their best clothes and avoided doing anything unpleasant. In Scotland, “if one met a beggar, sexton, gravedigger, or a person with empty arms on New Year’s Day, [it] presaged ill fortune” (8). So let me get this straight: you are to avoid women, criminals, squinters, those with deformities, and redheads on New Year’s Eve and beggars, sextons, gravediggers, and those traveling light on New Year’s Day. So many rules!
There are foods associated with good luck on New Year’s Day as well. Most of us here in the south know that we’re supposed to eat our black-eyed peas for good luck, but there are other foods, too: the Romans ate honey, the Hungarians have roasted pig with a four-leaf clover in its mouth, the Greeks eat Basil cakes, the British have god-cakes (small mince pies), the Germans eat fish and cabbage, and the Dutch enjoy apple fritters.
I have some friends in St. Louis who insisted I should eat pickled herring for good luck one year, but the closest it got was on my plate (I thought that was very generous of me). I think I’m going to go Dutch next year and only eat apple fritters on New Year’s!
Krythe, Maymie R. All About American Holidays. Harper & Row, 1962.