One New Year’s Scottish custom died out in America

Published 5:16 pm Thursday, December 29, 2011

“First footing” never really established a foothold in American (and Dark Corner) celebrations of New Year’s Eve, though it was, and still is, a major tradition in Glasgow, Edinburgh and other cities of Scotland, as part of the extended Hogmanay New Year’s celebration.

The first person to cross a house’s threshold after midnight on New Year’s Eve — the “first footer” — will help determine the family’s luck in the new year, according to Scottish lore.

Tradition says the first footer should be a tall, handsome male with dark hair. Males with red or blond hair are generally considered unlucky. This likely is because the Vikings who invaded Scotland in the 8th century were fair-haired.

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There have been reports of “cheating” on this aspect of the tradition in modern times. The family may rig their luck by getting a tall, dark and handsome partygoer to step outside in order to then knock on the door and enter as the first footer once the clock strikes 12.

While it is generally considered bad luck for the first footer to be fair-haired, it is also unlucky for him to come empty-handed. Traditional gifts brought by the first footer include whisky, brandy, a loaf of bread, salt, coins or a lump of coal.

All of these were symbolic of warmth or life sustenance. The lump of coal, in particular, represented not only warmth for the home and the abundance of cooking fuel, but coal was seen as a symbol of luck that was often carried into battle by soldiers.

Variations of the tradition in some places required that the first footer be silent until he had placed the lump of coal into the fire, while in other places he was expected to make loud, shouting noises while running through the house.

Another noticeable variation of the tradition in modern times concerns the gender of the first footer. Female first footers are still considered unlucky in some of the more traditional areas while being preferred in select newer ones.

The Hogmanay New Year’s celebration became more popular than Christmas in Scotland after the Protestant Reformation, some historians say, because Christmas and its close ties to the Roman Catholic Church was seen as “too Papist.”

With the abundance of early settlers to the Dark Corner being Scots-Irish Presbyterians and borderline England Calvinist Baptists and Methodists, Christmas always was a major celebration, far overshadowing any during New Year’s Eve.

Perhaps that is why “first footing” never really caught on in this locale.