Celtic New Year’s Traditions
Happy New Year! Hope you had a good one. Mine was quiet. I don’t tend to get excited about the holiday. I mean, there’s not much to it. Watching fireworks. Drinking a little champagne. Singing the song. You know the one I mean. It gets a bit same old, same old. So, for my first post of the new year, I thought I’d share some new ways to ring in the New Year. Well, they’re old actually. Here are a few time- honored New Year’s folk traditions from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
While each place has its own unique customs, all three have two in common: Cleaning House and First Footing.
Cleaning the House. This custom may seem unremarkable. After all, most of us will give our homes a little extra cleaning in preparation for receiving Christmas guests. But this Celtic tradition is done specifically in connection with the new year. It is a top-to-bottom thorough cleaning, similar to what many people would call Spring Cleaning. It is symbolic as well as practical. Metaphorically, it is getting rid of the old to welcome to the new.
An old tradition still practiced in some families is for the mother of the family to carry a smoldering herb, such as thistle, through each room of the home. This is done to purify the house and banish evil spirits.
First Footing. As with many folk customs, this tradition has a bit of superstition attached to it. The belief underpinning First footing is that the first person to come into your house at the new year is an indication of how the rest of the year will go. According to this tradition, if your first visitor is a dark-haired man, you will have good luck throughout the year. If, however, the first person over the threshold is a red-haired woman, watch out! Misfortune is coming. In Wales, any red-haired person—male or female—is a harbinger of bad luck. Also, in Welsh tradition, the woman doesn’t have to be red headed. If the first visitor is female, things will not go well.
Of course, one way to ensure good luck is to plan ahead. Families often pre-arrange for a dark-haired male relative or neighbor to come over at the stroke of midnight. In keeping with Celtic hospitality, the visitor usually brings a gift of some kind. In Scotland, the common offerings are bread or coal in the wish that the family will have an abundance of these necessities. In Wales, the gifts have symbolic meanings. Coal represents warm and bread is for sustenance. Other offerings include salt, a preserver, and silver, a symbol of riches.
In addition to these two common practices, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland each have their own New Year’s traditions.
New Year’s is called Hogmany in Scotland and it is one of the most significant days of the Scottish year. For about four hundred years, the public celebration of Christmas was banned. Until the 1950s, December 25th was just another workday. So Hogmany was the most festive time of the year for Scots. It’s still a time for all-out celebrating. Families host Hogmany parties for relatives and friends with lots of food, drams of good whiskey, and the singing of “Auld Lange Syne.” Well, you might say, singing “Auld Lange Syne” is not unique to Scotland. No, it isn’t but the song possibly means more to Scots than to Americans. After all, it was written by Robbie Burns, Scotland’s National Bard. Prior to the mid-twentieth century, families would exchange gifts on Hogmany, just as people do on Christmas.
Fire is a prevalent feature of Hogmany. Naturally, fireworks light up the night, but the element shows up in other forms too. Throughout Scotland, bonfires are lit. Torch-lit parades wind through towns. Perhaps the most impressive celebration of the element is at the annual Hogmany celebration in Stonehaven, near Aberdeen, Scotland. On New Year’s Eve, spectators line up along High Street around 11:00 p.m., entertained by the sounds of pipes and drums. Close to midnight, the music stops. A lone piper appears in the street, playing “Scotland the Brave.” He is followed by men wearing kilts. They are the Stonehaven Fireball Swingers. The men carry long poles with flaming balls at the tips. As they parade down the street, they raise their poles and whirl the fireballs over and around their heads in a spectacular and daring display.
Some people say the importance of fire in Hogmany festivities has its roots in Celtic rituals associated with the winter solstice. This makes sense. The astronomical event usually occurs around December 21st, so near New Year’s. Also, at the solstice, ancient Celts put small lights in pine trees to encourage the return of the sun and warm weather.
But I think the prevalence of fire in the celebration might have its roots in another ancient sacred day: Samhain (October 31-November 1st). It is one of the four major Celtic fire festivals. As part of the ancient ritual for this feast, a communal bonfire was lit. All home fires were extinguished then re-lit with flames from the communal fire. For me, though, the strongest connection between Hogmany and Samhain is that Samhain is, on the Celtic calendar, the start of the new year. As part of the traditional pre-New Year’s house cleaning, it is customary to empty the ashes from your fireplace so the fire can be started anew. This practice also harkens back to Samhain.
In addition to First Footing and the annual house cleaning, Irish New year’s traditions include the following:
Honoring the Dead. This is another New Year’s tradition that seems to originate in the ancient Celtic New Year, Samhain. The pre-Christian Celts believed that the spirits of their ancestors would come back from the Otherworld to visit their relatives in Samhain’s Eve. A contemporary Irish tradition is to set an empty place at the table for New Year’s dinner for any relative who has died during the past year (or even before). In addition, the front door is unlocked so the ghostly visitor can come straight in. No knocking needed.
In through the Front. Out through the Back. The first visitor to the house, as mentioned above in First Footing, isn’t the only guest likely to visit on New Year’s Day. Neighbors and friends are welcomed in throughout the day. It’s important, though, that they come in through the front and leave through the back. According to the folklore, this draws bad luck out of the house.
Bread Banging. People often mention “the luck of the Irish” and, as I said in my post, “Irish Superstitions for a Fun Friday,” they aren’t lucky by accident. The Irish take pains to be sure they get the right kind of luck (i.e., the good kind). So, on New Year’s, they’ve arranged for a dark-haired man to be the first person to enter their house. Later, they make sure their other visitors leave through the back door so bad luck leaves with them.
But there’s still one more thing to do on New Year’s to banish any negativity that’s still hanging out in the house. To completely expel any bad luck, they bang their leftover Christmas bread against the walls and doors. Think of this as akin to deleting temporary files from your computer. It frees up space so that there’s room in the house for good spirits to take up residence in the new year.
Evergreen Love. Traditionally, young Irish women would place a bit of holly, ivy, or mistletoe under their pillows on New Year’s. This, folklore claims, will make them dream about their future soul mate. Also, hanging mistletoe outside of the front door is said to help a single person marry within the coming year. This New Year’s custom has its roots in ancient Celtic practices associated with the winter solstice and evergreens. Click here to find out more.
In the spirit of starting fresh, one Welsh New Year’s tradition is to pay off all debts. Folk custom also says you should never lend money on New Year’s Day. Here are three Welsh New Year’s traditions that, sadly, are dying out.
Calennig. Starting at dawn on New Year’s morning, groups of boys go from house to house carrying cups of water and holly leaves. At each house, the boys dip the leaves into the cups and sprinkle water onto the person who opens the door. In return, the person gives them copper coins, which are known as the calennig. This activity harkens back to two possible practices. One is the Christian ritual of blessing a person with holy water. The other is the ancient Celtic Beltane tradition of first water.
Twelfth Night. The twelfth day of Christmas (familiar to most of us because of the song) is January 6th, the feast of Epiphany. This, in Wales, is the official end to the Christmas season. During the evening of this final day, men would put a wren (or sometimes a sparrow) in a box and carry it from house to house. At each home, the person who greeted them would lift the box lid and peek at the bird, then give the men a penny. This is similar to an Irish tradition, practiced on St. Stephen’s Day (December 26th).
Mari Lwyd. This folk tradition started in the Middle Ages. Mari lwed means “gray mare", and groups of men would bring a horse’s head on a stick decorated with colored ribbons from house to house. At each home, the men challenged whoever opened the door to a verbal battle of insults and poems. The verbal went back and forth between the men and the householder, spoken entirely in Welsh. After the battle was over, the men were invited into the house and rewarded with whiskey. By the 19th century, churches objected to the resulting drunkenness. Christmas carols replaced the poems. How this change reduced the level of intoxication, I’m not sure.
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Slan go foil!