Besides getting sloppy drunk and kissing everybody in the room at the stroke of midnight, celebrants throughout the ages have observed numerous lesser-known New Year’s customs and superstitions. Many of the superstitions associated with the event bear the common theme that activities engaged in on that day set the pattern for the year to come. Others have to do with warding off evil spirits or attracting luck.
Because January 1 is the first day of the new year, we have drawn a connection between what we do on that day and our fate throughout the rest of the year. Here are some of the ways we attempt to guarantee a good outcome through our acts on that portentous first day:
- Kissing at midnight: We kiss those dearest to us at midnight not only to share a moment of celebration with our favorite people, but also to ensure those affections and ties will continue throughout the next twelve months. To fail to smooch our significant others at the stroke of twelve would be to set the stage for a year of coldness.
- Stocking Up: The new year must not be seen in with bare cupboards, lest that be the way of things for the year. Larders must be topped up and plenty of money must be placed in every wallet in the home to guarantee prosperity.
- Paying Off Bills: The new year should not be begun with the household in debt, so checks should be written and mailed off prior to January 1st. Likewise, personal debts should be settled before the New Year arrives.
- First Footing: The first person to enter your home after the stroke of midnight will influence the year you’re about to have. Ideally, he should be dark-haired, tall, and good-looking, and it would be even better if he came bearing certain small gifts such as a lump of coal, a silver coin, a bit of bread, a sprig of evergreen, and some salt. Blonde and redhead first footers bring bad luck, and female first footers should be shooed away before they bring disaster down on the household — don’t let them near your door before a man crosses the threshold. The first footer (sometimes called the “Lucky Bird”) should knock and be let in rather than unceremoniously use a key, even if he is one of the householders. After greeting those in the house and dropping off whatever small tokens of luck he has brought with him, he should make his way through the house and leave by a different door than the one through which he entered. No one should leave the premises before the first footer arrives — the first traffic across the threshold must be headed in rather than striking out. First footers must not be cross-eyed or have flat feet or eyebrows that meet in the middle. Nothing prevents the cagey householder from stationing a dark-haired man outside the home just before midnight to ensure the speedy arrival of a suitable first footer as soon as the chimes sound. If one of the partygoers is recruited for this purpose, impress upon him the need to slip out quietly just prior to the witching hour.
- Nothing Goes Out: Nothing — absolutely nothing, not even garbage — is to leave the house on the first day of the year. If you’ve presents to deliver on New Year’s Day, leave them in the car overnight. Don’t so much as shake out a rug or take the empties to the recycle bin. Some people soften this rule by saying it’s okay to remove things from the home on New Year’s Day provided something else has been brought in first. This is similar to the caution regarding first footers; the year must begin with something’s being added to the home before anything subtracts from it. One who lives alone might place a lucky item or two in a basket that has a string tied to it, then set the basket just outside the front door before midnight. After midnight, the lone celebrant hauls in his catch, being careful to bring the item across the door jamb by pulling the string rather than by reaching out to retrieve it and thus breaking the plane of the threshold.
- Food: A tradition common to the southern states of the USA dictates that the eating of black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day will attract both general good luck and financial good fortune in particular to the one doing the dining. Some choose to add other Southern fare (such as ham hocks, collard greens, or cabbage) to this tradition, but the black-eyed peas are key. Other “lucky” foods are lentil soup (because lentils supposedly look like coins), pork (because poultry scratches backwards, a cow stands still, but a pig roots forward, ergo those who dine upon pork will be moving forward in the new year), and sauerkraut (probably because it goes so well with pork). Another oft-repeated belief holds that one must not eat chicken or turkey on the first day of the year lest, like the birds in question, diners fate themselves to scratch in the dirt all year for their dinner (that is, bring poverty upon themselves).
- Work: Make sure to do — and be successful at — something related to your work on the first day of the year, even if you don’t go near your place of employment that day. Limit your activity to a token amount, though, because to engage in a serious work project on that day is very unlucky. Also, do not do the laundry on New Year’s Day, lest a member of the family be ‘washed away’ (die) in the upcoming months. The more cautious eschew even washing dishes.
- New Clothes: Wear something new on January 1 to increase the likelihood of your receiving more new garments during the year to follow.
- Money: Do not pay back loans or lend money or other precious items on New Year’s Day. To do so is to guarantee you’ll be paying out all year.
- Breakage: Avoid breaking things on that first day lest wreckage be part of your year. Also, avoid crying on the first day of the year lest that activity set the tone for the next twelve months.
Other superstitions attaching to the beginning of the new year are:
- Letting the Old Year Out: At midnight, all the doors of a house must be opened to let the old year escape unimpeded. He must leave before the New Year can come in, says popular wisdom, so doors are flung open to assist him in finding his way out.
- Loud Noise: Make as much noise as possible at midnight. You’re not just celebrating; you’re scaring away evil spirits, so do a darned good job of it!According to widespread superstition, evil spirits and the Devil himself hate loud noise. We celebrate by making as much of a din as possible not just as an expression of joy at having a new year at our disposal, but also to make sure Old Scratch and his minions don’t stick around. (Church bells are rung on a couple’s wedding day for the same reason.)
- The Weather: Examine the weather in the early hours of New Year’s Day. If the wind blows from the south, there will be fine weather and prosperous times in the year ahead. If it comes from the north, it will be a year of bad weather. The wind blowing from the east brings famine and calamities. Strangest of all, if the wind blows from the west, the year will witness plentiful supplies of milk and fish but will also see the death of a very important person. If there’s no wind at all, a joyful and prosperous year may be expected by all.
- Born on January 1: Babies born on this day will always have luck on their side.
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New York: Barnes & Noble, 1996. ISBN 0-76070-228-4.
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