Ringing in the New Year

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

As I was growing up, I do not remember my family celebrating New Year’s Day with any special customs. It was only after I left for college and heard about New Year’s Day experiences from roommates and friends (particularly traditions having to do with food) that I realized that anything was missing. Perhaps the lack of such celebrations came about because my mother’s birthday is New Year’s Eve, and that event might have overshadowed any other New Year’s Day celebrations.  As the years have gone by, however, I have begun to wonder if earlier generations in my family had perhaps celebrated differently.

I have British Isles roots on my maternal side (although several generations have passed since emigration) and Portuguese roots on my paternal side (my grandparents’ generation). Research into these ethnic origins offers some insight into how New Year’s might have been celebrated by my ancestors (even if the tradition has been lost somehow over the years).

My British Isles ancestors were predominantly from England, although there is at least one documented tie to Scotland in my third great grandfather, George Duncan. In Scotland, the New Year’s celebration is called Hogmanay and begins on New Year’s Eve and can last as long as four days, Hogmanay is a fire festival featuring the burning of  juniper branches to purify houses. In towns such as Stonehaven fireballs are carried throughout the town, and in other locations barrels of tar are lit and rolled down the center of the street, or bonfires are lit, as a means of burning out the old year and welcoming in the new. Today, the Hogmanay celebration in Edinburgh is a huge and well-attended event. Food also plays a role with haggis, shortbread, scones, oatmeal cakes, whisky, and the traditional black bun (flaky pastry filled with raisins, currants, almonds, spices and brandy) consumed in great numbers.

One of the most important parts of the New Year’s celebration is known as “first footing.” This tradition takes place immediately after midnight New Year’s Eve and its attendant renditions of Robert Burns’ Auld Lang Syne. Neighbors visit one another’s house, bringing with them a symbolic gift such as shortbread or black bun. In turn, they are offered a “wee dram.” It is important, however, that the first visitor (“first footer”) be a dark-haired man – preferably tall and handsome – to ensure good luck to the house for the New Year. While a blond-headed man might not portent totally disastrous luck, a red-headed one would, and a red-headed woman would signal the worst possible year-to-come. In England, many of the same traditions also are followed, such as the welcome given to dark-haired first footers and, in some counties, the burning of a hawthorn bush for luck in the New Year. One particular tradition was that girls would drop egg whites into a container of water. The shapes taken by successive eggs was interpreted to signify the first letter of the name of the bridegroom each individual girl would ultimately marry.

In Portugal, the New Year’s holiday is a very social occasion, with parties, singing, and dancing. Janeiras, or carolers, sing traditional songs house-to-house. There is an interesting take on “first footing” that involves getting down from a chair on the correct foot in order to start the year out right. My Portuguese ancestors may have believed in insuring luck during the New Year by eating twelve grapes (or raisins) as the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, each grape accompanied by a wish for one of the coming year’s twelve months. Other traditions included eating a king cake (sound like Mardi Gras?), and caldo verde e brao, a meal of green broth with corn bread. Many families would also have attended church services as part of their New Year’s activities.

Many countries have special traditions surrounding the change from the old year to the new. A comprehensive list of these traditions can be found at FatherTime’s.Net, where links to locations such as Armenia, Bengali, Burma, Egypt, Greece, Hungary, Iran, Korea, Romania, Swaziland, Tibet, and more may provide hints as to how your ancestors may have celebrated the advent of the new year. Another site with information about various traditions is 123NewYear.com and Freelang.net provides a list of how to say Happy New Year in a long list of languages.

I hope you will think about your ancestors and how – and when – they may have celebrated the New Year and add this knowledge to your understanding of their family lives and times. In the mean time, Happy New Year; habliadhna mhath ur; feliz ano novo; bonne année; gelukkig nieuwjarr; got nytt år; unyaka omusha omuhle; a gut yohr; blwyddyn newydd dda; sretna nova godina; akemashite omedetô; felix sit annus novus!


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