First Footing at New Year

First Footing is still very much alive in modern Britain. A survey shows that nearly a third of people in Britain say that First Footing continues to play a part in their New Year celebrations.

The greatest number of followers of the First Footing tradition (when the first person over your threshold after the clock has chimed midnight on December 31 brings you good luck for the coming year), are in the North East of England (58%) followed by Scotland (52%).  Though not as widespread as before, still around 30% of British people continue the tradition in some way.

The classic form of First Footing means everyone waits for the knock on the door and when it is opened, over the threshold comes the `First Foot’ – by tradition a tall, dark man with gifts in his hand to bring the house and everyone in it good luck for the next 12 months.  In parts of the country the hair-colour of the visitor is not such an issue but if you lived in an area that was frequently rated by Scandinavians or Irish then red hair for example wasn’t always seen as the type of visitor who would bring you good luck!

First Footing

First Footing goodies!

First Footing is based on the old European superstition that what you are doing at the beginning of the year determines your luck.  What is unlucky is for the First Foot caller to come empty handed so symbols of warmth, food and wealth were carried. Wealth could be represented by a silver coin or salt, vital for preserving food in the days before refrigeration.

In England the food was normally bread but regional variations ranged from red herrings in the East Neuk of Fife fishing villages, mince piecs in Sheffield to Black Bun in Scotland – a rich fruit cake encased in pastry. Sometimes the food was replaced with drink – a glass of wine in Staffordshire and whisky in Scotland.

But of all the symbols the one most regularly included was coal, not only because is was the basis of family life giving them warmth and fuel for cooking but also because it has always been seen as being lucky – soldiers carrying it into battle with them and children taking pieces into exams.

Equally varied is the type of person doing the First Footing. Long ago it could have been a chance caller but now people make sure of their luck. Often a member of the family or someone at a New Year’s party will go outside before midnight to come back to perform the ceremony, or a neighbour or friend is enlisted. In most places the First Foot will be a man but in some parts women are preferred.

The First Foot (or Lucky Bird as they were called in Yorkshire), was rewarded with food and drink and so good was the welcome that in Edinburgh fights would break out among youths competing for First Foot rights in prosperous neighbourhoods.

There’s also a host of variable First Foot rules. In areas of England and Scotland the First Foot must not speak until he or she has placed a piece of coal or evergreen branch on the fire. But in other places things were far noisier. In the Staffordshire Black Country the First Foot would run through the house shouting `Please to let the New Year in’. In County Durham they would exclaim `Happy New Year t’ye! God send ye plenty! Where ye have one pound note, I wish ye may have twenty.’

What kinder sentiments can there be than those of the First Foot who puts a coal on a neighbour’s fire and says `May your hearth never grow cold’?

In Greece there is a similar tradition known as  Pothariko where it is believed that the first person to enter the house on New Year’s Eve brings either good luck or bad luck. Many households to this day keep this tradition and specially select who enters first into the house. After the first-foot or Podariko (from the root pod-, or foot), the lady of the house serves the guests with Christmas treats or gives them an amount of money to ensure that good luck will come in the New Year.

A similar tradition exists in the country of Georgia, where the person is called “mekvle” and the name too derivates “kvali” which can be translated as  footstep or footprint.

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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5 Responses to First Footing at New Year

  1. Graham says:

    Happy new year to you! I’ve never heard of First Footing until NYE just gone by (strange coincidence when someone was telling us about it (from Scottish roots)). It seems quite a nice and harmless tradition which doesn’t require a commercial takeover unlike most of them. Fingers crossed it stays that way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Happy New Year Graham! That’s a strange co-incidence especially when it used to be so much more popular than what it is today. I hope it survives too, sadly it seems too many traditions only make it if there is an excuse for big business to make money out of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Mel & Suan says:

    Happy 2018! And may ye who have a 1 pound note we wish ye have twenty (and more)!!
    Now one would not have thought about bringing coal to someone’s home as being positive. Afterall there’s that Santa thingy about being given a lump of coal in the socks for not being nice… heheh…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yeah, we do this in our family. The story I’ve always heard is that my great-grandparents brought the tradition with them from Italy when they moved to north-east England, where we still are today.

    The youngest in the family goes outside just before midnight and when midnight arrives, the door is opened and the youngest is welcomed in holding gifts of coal, bread and money. Then there’s hugs, drinks and “Happy New Years” all around. The coal and money we have are decades and decades old, passed down from granddad. I’ve never heard it called ‘first footing’ before, we just call it welcoming in the New Year.

    Whilst it tends to be the youngest, if the year was a bad one, someone else does it the following year in the hope that, as mum puts it, “someone else might bring a bit more luck this year.”

    Since I’m the youngest, I’ve been the one to do this most of the time over the last 27 years, although I did it with my brother this time round.

    I love it. It’s a great tradition.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is such a co-incidence I write this post and your family doesn’t just do it but you’re the one to do the ‘first-footing’! The tradition or something similar must be found in various rural communities across Europe if it is found in Georgia, Greece and Italy too as well as in the U.K. I’m originally from North-East England too but now living near London only the oldest people in the neighbourhood have ever heard of it which is sad.

      Liked by 1 person

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