New Year’s Eve

New Year’s Eve is a day of omens and taboos when it is important to banish the old year and ensure good luck and prosperity for the new one. Debts had to be paid before the end of the year to avoid starting the new one in debt, and thus setting a pattern for the future; lending as much as a light was considered very unlucky. If you got up early on New Year’s Day, you would be an early riser for the rest of the year and so on.

Protection from the Supernatural

It was necessary to protect the home and its inhabitants from the supernatural. In many places, New Year’s Eve was considered the most dangerous and magically charged night of the year. In Iceland, for example, cows gain human speech, seals take on human form, the dead rise from their graves and the elves move house.

 In the Scottish Highlands houses were decorated with holly on order to keep out the fairies. It was the tradition to keep the fire, which was usually damped down at night, burning away merrily all through New Year’s night, fuelled along with a special incantation. Candles were also kept blazing in the belief that evil would be kept from the door. If the fire went out that night, it was a very bad omen for the coming year.

Evil had to be warded off and the old year banished. In Silesia it was the custom on both Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve for people to fire shots into bushes and trees and over meadows to drive out evil spirits and witches, and to wrap the trunks of fruit trees in straw to protect them from harm. In Romania there was a custom known as the ‘little plough’. After dark, boys and men went from house to house, with long greetings, the ringing of bells and the cracking of whips. In Germany, elder twigs were cut, fashioned into a wheel and put in the house to protect it against fire. Animals were given a mixed bowl of corn and clover to ward off witches and fruit trees were beaten with little sacks of peas in order to make them bear fruit. A broth made from wild pears was placed on the threshold to ward off death in the coming year. In some parts of Macedonia on New Year’s Eve men or boys went about making a noise with bells to drive away evil and the old year.

Fireworks were traditional in Germany to drive away evil spirits and bad weather. In Switzerland, the people parade through the streets dressed in costumes and hats, representative of good and evil spirits. In Italy the day is celebrated by throwing broken pots out of the window, firing guns and setting off firecrackers. In Denmark the same thing is done with the aim of chasing away trolls and evil spirits. This seems to be an end of year custom designed to make enough noise to chase away the spirits of darkness. [1]

Ritual Purification

Ritual purification was common. On the last night of the year, Strathdown Highlanders would bring home great loads of juniper, which was kindled in the different rooms, with all the windows and doors closed, to fumigate all the household members and all the farm animals. [2] In Germany, juniper twigs collected during the year were brought in and burned to protect the house. Austrians considered this a rauchnacht or smoke-night when all rooms and animals must be purified with the smoke of burning wormwood and holy water. Another kind of purification existed in the Scottish Highlands where it was believed that if a boy were whipped with the branch of holly it was an assurance that he would live for as many years as the drops of blood drawn by the sharp leaves.

In several places, it was customary to ‘burn out the old year’ with bonfires, as at  Biggar in Lanarkshire, while at Burghead in Morayshire a tar-barrel called the Clavie was set on fire and carried about the village and the fishing boats (the latter is carried out on New Year’s Eve Old Style, 11th January). People collected the embers as charms against witchcraft. In Allendale, in the northern Pennines, a burning out the old year ceremony is held. Guisers begin their rounds of the local pubs in the evening, and shortly before midnight form up into three columns, each man carrying a blazing tar barrel on his head. Led by a band, they process to the market place and circle a large bonfire and the barrels are thrown on. After a communal singing of Auld Lang Syne, the guisers spend the rest of the night first footing. [3]

In Herefordshire and surrounding counties, one tradition was the weaving a of a globe of hawthorn twigs which was then set alight and carried around the fields where crops had yet to be planted or where the seeds lay awaiting the warmer weather,  possibly symbolising the returning sun and lengthening days. The custom was widespread on farms and in villages in Herefordshire and Radnorshire during the nineteenth century. In parts of Worcestershire, on New Year’s morning, a crown was made of blackthorn which was then baked in the oven before being burned to ashes in a cornfield, the ashes then being scattered over the ground. Sometimes simple libations of cider or beer were made to crops or pieces of cake buried as offerings.

Letting the New Year In

It was important to ‘let the New Year in’ in the proper manner. First footing customs are found throughout Britain.  In Aberdeenshire it is considered most important that the first-foot (i.e. the first person over the threshold after the chime of midnight) should not come empty-handed but must offer a handsel, a gift of spiced ale, whiskey, shortbread, oak cakes, sweets or sowens or fuel for the fire. Occasionally the sowens were sprinkled on the doors and windows of the houses visited. An offering of food or drink must be accepted by sharing it with everyone present, including the visitor. Fuel must be placed onto the fire by the visitor with the words “A Good New Year to one and all and many may you see”. The first foot had to be a man or a boy, and preferably dark haired, as it was very unlucky for a red-headed man – or in some places, a fair-haired man – to ‘let in’ the New Year. In parts of Cardiganshire it was lucky for a woman to see a man first, but unlucky for a man to see a woman first. In Pen-Coed it was unlucky to see a red-headed man first. In some places the initial letter of the person’s name was also significant, H for happiness, J for joy etc, while T was for trouble, W for worry and S for sorrow. [4]

First footing was a common practice in the northern counties of England where it was generally called ‘seeing the New Year in’. In Shropshire the first footer must not be a woman, and people often engaged a friendly man or boy to pay them an early visit. In Montgomeryshire little boys were paraded through the house to ‘break the witch’ if a woman or girl had been thoughtless enough to call on New Year’s morning. In some places a bachelor was considered best, and had to bring a shovelful of coals, something to eat or whisky. In the East Riding of Yorkshire a boy called the ‘lucky bird’ used to come at dawn on Christmas morning as well as on New Year’s Day and bring a sprig of evergreens. In the Isle of Man and Northumberland it was decreed that the first-foot should not be flat-footed but should be a person with a high-arched instep, a foot that ‘water runs under’.

A strange custom, which hints at older rites, was found in the Highlands on New Year’s Eve. The hide of a mart or winter cow was wrapped round the head of one of the men and he went off, followed by the rest of the party who struck the hide with switches so that it made a booming sound, like a drum. The part of the hide used was the loose flap of the beast’s neck. [5] The procession went three times sunwise round every house in each town, beating on the walls of the house and chanting their rhymes at the door. A rhyme such as the following was chanted:

Great good luck to the house,

Good luck to the family,

Good luck to every rafter of it,

And to every worldly thing in it.

Good luck to horses and cattle,

Good luck to sheep,

Good luck to everything,

And good luck to all your means.

Luck to the good-wife,

Good luck to the children,

Good luck to every friend,

Great fortune and health to all.[6]

On entering each house each member of the party was offered refreshments of oatmeal, bread, cheese and meat, followed by whisky. The man of the house was then given the caisean-uchd, or breast-skin of a sheep, goat or deer which was wrapped round the point of a shinty stick; this was singed in the fire, and carried three times sunwise round the family, grasped in the right hand, and held to the nose of each person. [7] This ‘breast-stripe’ was meant to convey luck to each family. It was an oval strip, and no knife might be used in removing it from the flesh. The inhaling of its fumes is a talisman against fairies, witches and demons. In the island of South Uist, each person seized hold of it as it burned, making the sign of the cross (if he was a Catholic) in the name of the Trinity, and it was put three times sun-wise about the heads of those present. If it went out it was a bad omen for the New Year.

Some form of Duan Challuinn (‘Hogmanay Poem’) would always be chanted. There were two types of visitation; in one instance the rhyme was recited outside the house and the chant described the ritual of approaching and entering the house. Another rhyme was sung after the house had been entered, when the caisean Calluig (‘Hogmanay Hide’) was beaten. [8] Alexander Carmichael (The Silver Bough) gave the following example of a seasonal rhyme:

Tonight is the hard night of Hogmanay

I am come with a lamb to sell–

The old fellow yonder sternly said

He would strike my ear against a rock.

The woman, better of speech, said

That I should be let in;

For my food and for my drink,

A morsel due and something with it.

Apparently lads with no better rhyme use to chant the following:

I have no dislike of cheese

I have no disgust of butter,

But a little sip of barley bree

I am right willing to put down!

The giving of gifts was observed at New Year. In Wales the custom of calennig (‘New Year’s gift’) began early in the day and continued to noon. The children in West Glamorgan went from house to house with good wishes for the New Year. They carried apples stuck full of corn, variously coloured and decorated with a sprig of evergreen, three short skewers serving as supports to the apple when it was no being held, and a fourth stuck through it to hold it. [9] A later account states the apples were studded with oats and raisins and powdered with wheat flour, touched with gold leaf with sprigs of box and rosemary. Half cracked hazelnuts were attached to the ends of the leaves so the shells would clasp the foliage.[10] Verses were sung at the doors in return for food and small gifts of money:

I came today out of my house with bag and sticks,

My errand here is to fill my bag with bread and cheese.

Or to ask for money in North Cardiganshire:

I rose early and walked as fast as I could to ask for calennig,

If you feel it in your heart give a shilling or a sixpence;

A happy New Year for a halfpenny or a penny.

In England, children would dress in their best clothes and carrying apples or oranges stuck with cloves, would sally forth to crave a gift from their godfathers and godmothers.

In the Highlands of Scotland, it was customary for the poorer children to wrap themselves in a great sheet, doubled up in front so as to form a vast pocket, and then go along the streets in little bands, calling out “Hogmanay” at the doors of the wealthier people hoping for a gift of oatcake, which was called the Hogmanay:

Get up, goodwife, and shake your feathers,

And dinna think that we are beggars;

For we are bairns come out to play,

Get up and gie’s our hogmanay!

The First Water

The first water drawn in the New Year was believed to have magical properties. In Pembrokeshire, early on New Year’s morning, around four am, 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. [11] The rooms of every house they entered would be sprinkled. While sprinkling, the following verses were recited:

Here we bring new water from the well so clear,
For to worship God with, this happy new year;
Sing levy dew, sing levy dew, the water and the wine,
With seven bright gold wires, and bugles that do shine;

Sing reign of fair maid, with gold upon her toe;
Open you the west door and turn the old year go;
Sing levy dew, sing levy dew, the water and the wine,
With seven bright gold wires, and bugles that do shine;

Sing reign of fair maid, with gold upon her chin.
Open you the east door and let the new year in!
Sing levy dew, sing levy dew, the water and the wine,
With seven bright gold wires, and bugles that do shine.

A Highland practice was to send some one 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.

A belief about the luckiness of ‘new water’ existed at Canzano Peligno in the Abruzzi. On New Year’s Eve, the fountain was decked with leaves and bits of coloured stuff, and fires were kindled round it. As soon as it was lit, the girls would come as usual with their copper pots on their head; but the youths were, on this morning, guardians of the well, and sold the ‘new water’ for nuts, fruits and sweets.  A similar custom was practiced in Carpathia, but on Christmas morning. When the first morning star was up, the whole family hurried to wash in a cold brook. They believed that the bath had a magical purgative function and that it would help them to maintain good health throughout the year.

New Year Divination

Divinations were also practiced. One involved placing a ring in the filled bowl, with young unmarried people dunking for the ring; the one who succeeded in retrieving it without the use of his or her hands was guaranteed to be married within the year. The coming weather was also considered. According to one rhyme:

If New Year’s Eve night wind blows South,

It betokeneth warmth and growth;

If West, much milk and fish in the sea,

If North, much cold and storms there will be;

If East, the trees will bear much fruit;

If North-east, flee it, man and brute.

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.

In Germany it was also a time of divination – if you put a leaf of periwinkle on a plate filled with water and it remains green until the following night, you can expect health during the coming year. If it stains, you can expect illness, and if it turns black, death will follow. One popular custom is Bleigiessen, where a candle is lit and small chunks of lead are melted in a spoon held over the candle. The molten lead is then quickly dropped into cold water, whereupon it hardens almost immediately. A heart or ring means a wedding, a ship foretells a journey and so on.

In Macedonia St. Basil’s Eve (New Year’s Eve) is a common time for divination: a favourite method is to lay on the hot cinders a pair of wild-olive-leaves to represent a youth and a maid. If the leaves crumple up and draw near each other, it is concluded that the young people love one another dearly, but if they recoil apart the opposite is the case. If they flare up and burn, it is a sign of excessive passion. St. Basil’s Cake was baked with a silver coin and a cross of green twigs in it. When all were seated round the table, the father and mother took the cake, and broke it into two pieces, then into smaller portions. The first portion was destined for St. Basil or the Holy Virgin or the patron saint whose icon stood in the house. The second was for the house itself. The third was the cattle and domestic animals. The fourth was for the inanimate property and the rest for each member of the household according to age. Each portion was successively dipped in a cup of wine, and the person who found the cross or coin in his piece prosper during the year. The coin was considered sacred and i used to buy a votive candle.

On the Isle of Man On it was a custom to fill a thimble with salt and upset it on a plate, one thimble for every one 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.

© Anna Franklin, Yule, History, Lore and Celebration, Lear Books, 2010


[1] Prof. Philippe Walter, Christianity, the Origins of a Pagan Religion, Inner Traditions, Vermont, 2006

[2] W. Grant, Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, Archibald Constable,  London, 1823

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

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

[5] Ann Ross , The Folklore of the Scottish Highlands, Barnes and Noble, 1976

[6] Ibid

[7] J.G.Campbell, Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, 1902

[8] Ann Ross , The Folklore of the Scottish Highlands, Barnes and Noble, 1976

[9] Gentleman’s Magazine, March 1819

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

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

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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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