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10 British Ways to Ring in the New Year
Before we get started, let’s be clear that traditions are often unique and singular, and have the capacity to travel far and wide. So if we happen across a thing you always do out in Missouri or Seattle, and you’ve never even been to Europe, much less the British Isles, let’s just call it a happy coincidence and move on, before family honor is besmirched, and I am forced to draw my battling gauntlets.
For my part, I’ll try and keep away from the words “auld” and “lang” and “syne,” deal?
Again, lady luck makes her extravagant demands and everyone is expected to fall in line. A first-footer is a dark-haired young man, one of the local dreamboats, who is sent out of the house just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, so he can come back in as soon as midnight has arrived, bringing gifts of bread, or a coin, or some salt, or some coal, or some whiskey. All of which are harbingers of good fortune.
In Worcestershire, the first footer role has been transferred to the first carol singer to cross the threshold in the new year. While in Yorkshire, they’re less fussy about whether the arrival is dark haired or not, but he must definitely be male. But woe betide any red-head that tries to get across the threshold first. Who needs that kind of jinx on the entire year?
In Wales, Calennig is the name of New Year’s Day celebrations (particularly a parade in Cardiff), and a calennig is a kind of table-top sculpture made of an apple and some twigs. You basically make a tripedal stand for the apple by sticking the twigs in, and coat them with dried fruit and nuts, and add a sprig from an evergreen on the top. This then becomes a decoration for windowsills and mantelpieces, to bring luck to the household in the forthcoming year.
On New Year’s Day (or Dydd Calan), some Welsh children get up early to go and sing songs to their neighbors, for which they receive sweets, mince pies, and money. They may also carry callenig in their hands (or the gifts themselves may be called callenig. depending on your experiences). It’s a bit like Hallowe’en, but more melodic. But be warned, do not borrow the money to pay the children. It’s a superstition that if you begin the year in debt, you will remain in debt until the following new year’s eve.
Guisers Of Fire
In Northumberland (as is the case in a lot of places where alcohol is brewed), there’s the Allendale Tar Barl Festival on December 31st, where whiskey barrels are filled with burning tar, kindling and sawdust and paraded through town on the heads of Guisers (the name given to the flame-retardant people carrying the barrels).
Fireball and Chain
Meanwhile, in Stonehaven, near Aberdeen, Scotland, a similar thing is going on. Except the fire is a bit more portable, and often accompanied by pipe bands and drummers.
And over in Comrie, Perthshire, a procession is made through the town comprising eight torches, which are ceremonially hurled into the River Earn, to cast out evil spirits. It clearly works, too, because Comrie is a lovely place, bereft of spirits of any sort.
The tradition in Yorkshire is to say “black rabbits, black rabbits, black rabbits” just as the clock is about to chime midnight on New Year’s Eve. Then, as the clock strikes twelve, say “white rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits” as your first utterance of the new year. Good luck will ensue. Or at least, the good fortune not to have to say anything about rabbits for another twelve months.
Cake on a cow
This one dates back to medieval times, and as far as I’m aware, doesn’t happen any more. But once upon a time, every January 1st, farmers would put a flat cake onto a cow’s horns and then commence a ceremonial song and dance around it. Should the cake fall forwards, the farmer will have good luck for the rest of the year. If it falls backwards… well he’d better have said his white rabbitses.
The Burning Bush
Another discontinued rural tradition that concerns fire and good fortune: In the farming county of Herefordshire, a young farmer would rise before dawn, and take a hawthorn bush to a wheatfield, where it would be set on fire to ensure a good harvest and general prosperity.
Egg White Rom-lette
And my personal favorite New Year’s Day tradition (again, sadly no longer with us), is the one where girls would drop egg whites into water on New Year’s Day. It was widely believed that the first letter of the man they would one day marry would appear in the swirling guck. Which is fine if you want to marry a man whose name begins with an S, but distinctly unfair to anyone called Quentin, Arthur or Frederick.
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