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 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.