New Year’s Day

We still celebrate New Year as an important holiday and a day of firsts. Its ancient customs have persisted into the modern age – a firm break with the past and the previous year must be made, and all tasks must be finished before the New Year begins. In the past, everything done or seen on New Year’s Day had a magical or symbolic significance, and it was important to begin the year as you meant to go on. This included feasting well  to ensure food for the coming year, not starting the year as a debtor and not giving anything away, which would be giving your luck away. No substance of any kind was allowed to be removed from the house on New Year’s Day – not even dirty water, sweepings from the floor and ashes from the heath. One of the unluckiest things to do was give a neighbour fire from your hearth, which would ensure a death within that family during the coming year. 

In ancient Rome, in celebrations that might still seem entirely familiar to us today, the Kalends (first day) of January were celebrated with singing and dancing all night long in the streets, men wearing women’s clothes and people wearing masks and disguises. Libanius, the famous Greek sophist of the fourth century CE wrote:

“The festival of the Kalends is celebrated everywhere as far as the limits of the Roman Empire extend…. Everywhere may be seen carousals and well-laden tables; luxurious abundance is found in the houses of the rich, but also in the houses of the poor better food than usual is put upon the table. The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who the whole year through has taken pleasure in saving and piling up his pence, becomes suddenly extravagant.” [1]

The Christians took a dim view of this continuation of Pagan customs. Caesarius of Arles (sixth century CE) castigated that: “…the heathen put on counterfeit forms and monstrous faces….Some are clothes in the hides of cattle, others put on the heads of beasts…furthermore those who have been born men are clothed in women’s dress…blushing not to clothe their warlike arms in women’s garments…[2]  Even priests were accused of wearing masks, dressing as women and singing lewd songs.

Because it was the start of a whole new year, it was a day for taking omens. In the eleventh century, Buchard of Worms wrote “Have you celebrated the calends of January according to pagan customs?… to wit: arranging stones on your table or giving a feast, leading dancers or singers through the streets and squares, taking a seat upon your roof while wearing your sword in order to see and know what will happen in the new year, sitting atop of a bull’s hide where the roads cross to read the future, on the night of January 1 cooking bread for yourself to know whether the new year will be prosperous according to whether the dough rises? If yes, because you have abandoned God your creator, and have turned to vain idols and become apostate, you will fast on all the official days for two years.” [3]

Divinations continued to be widely practiced into very recent times. 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) were baked into dough, and laid beneath nine plates, and everyone had three grabs at them. Whatever he got would be his lot during the year. Germans put a leaf of periwinkle on a plate filled with water and if it remained green until the following night, good health was assured for the coming year. If it stained though, it meant illness; if it turned black, death would follow. In Macedonia St. Basil’s Cake was baked with a silver coin in it. The person who found coin in his piece would prosper during the year. On the Isle of Man it was a custom to fill a thimble with salt and upset it on a plate, one thimbleful for each person in the house. This was put aside for the night and examined the next morning. If any of the heaps of salt had fallen over that person would die in the coming year.

In Britain, in the spirit of ensuring prosperity for the coming year with sympathetic magic, gifts were once given at New Year, rather than Christmas. [4]  Children in West Glamorgan went from house to house with good wishes for the New Year, carrying apples stuck full of corn, variously coloured and decorated with a sprig of evergreen. [5] For the same reason, on the Scottish Borders, care was taken that no one entered a house empty-handed on New Year’s Day and in England, a visitor had to bring something to eat or drink.  Rumanians threw handfuls of corn at one another with some appropriate greeting, such as:

May you live,

May you flourish

Like apple-trees,

Like pear-trees

In springtime,

Like wealthy autumn,

Of all things plentiful. [6]

In Russia, corn sheaves were piled upon a table and in the midst of them was set a large pie. The father of the family took his seat behind them, and asked his children if they could see him. When they replied in the negative, he would declare that he hoped that the corn would grow as high in his fields that he would be just as invisible when he walked there at harvest time. 

On the first day of the New Year, the first drawn water from a well or spring gained magical properties. A Highland practice was to send someone on the last night of the year to draw a pitcher 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. 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 pitcher of water) and with it the prospect of the best luck. In Pembrokeshire, early on New Year’s morning, crowds of boys went round the neighbourhood with a vessel of cold spring water and using a twig of box, rosemary or myrtle they would sprinkle the hands and faces of anyone they met in return for a copper or two. [7]

© Anna Franklin

[1] Quoted in C. Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan,   T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1912

[2] Quoted in John Matthews, The Winter Solstice, Godsfield Press, Arelsford, 2003

[3] Quoted in Prof. Philippe Walter, Christianity, The Origins of a Pagan Region, Inner Traditions, Vermont, 2006

[4] Charles Kightly, The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain, Thames and Hudson, London, 1986

[5] Gentleman’s Magazine, March 1819

[6] C. Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan,   T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1912

[7] Trefor M. Owen, Welsh Folk Customs, Gomer Press, Llandysul, 1994


Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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