Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A New Year's Compendium of Traditions, Superstitions and More

In 2008 I posted a blog about New Year's traditions, and in 2011 I reocrded an interview for WV Public Radio about New Year's traditions. Here are some new ones I've found, along with the essay and my original post at the bottom for those of you who might have forgotten all the technicalities that supposedly ensure luck, health, happiness and wealth in the coming year.

Calendar: Take a calender for the new year, then close your eyes (or use a blindfold if it's a party) and turn the pages of the calendar at random and put your finger on a date. On that date, something good will happen to you. You will be able to look forward to this "lucky day" all year.

First-footer: always make sure it is a man who enters your home first on New Year's Day. Some traditions hold that it should be a light-haired man. (I'm in luck there, with Larry's white head!) Others insist on a light-haired man, so I guess it's all good either way.

Parsley: a leaf of parsley on the bottom shelf of your fridge on New Year's Day will make it certain that you will never be without money in the coming year. No wonder I've always been broke. Who knew?

Here is an essay I did for WV Public Radio a few years ago:

Have you cleaned your house, put on new clothes, put money in your pocket and invited a dark-haired man to be the first to cross your threshold at midnight? If you have done all of these things, you have made a good start for the new year. And you will be joining a long line of mountaineers who have followed these same customs for years, many of which came to the Appalachians with the early settlers from Britain and Europe.

For example, there is the food: many people in the mountains still cook and serve cabbage every New Year’s Day. I follow my English mother’s tradition of wrapping wrapped coins in foil, to be found in the servings on our plates at dinner. Although health experts would probably choke on their cabbage at such a practice, it has apparently done me little harm, although I can’t say I have ever gained the wealth that was supposed to come from dutifully following this custom. The cabbage must be served with pork, because chickens and turkeys scratch for their food, and cattle eat standing still. Since the hog eats while moving forward, obviiously pork is the best choice to ensure a year of progress.

Finding a dark-haired man, called the “first-footer,” to enter your home before anyone else on New Year’s morning is supposed to assure wealth, just as it did for my mother’s family back in England.  There are also those who believe that it’s bad luck to take the Christmas tree down until after New Year’s Day. So if you’re one of those who hurries to get the tree down quickly after Christmas Day, you might want to enjoy that tree just a little longer and see if your fortunes improve this year. In Scotland, homes are scoured for the coming of the new year, a custom that still has its followers in our mountains. I heard a Jackson County neighbor refer to this as “redding the house,” the same term used in Scotland to describe these preparations.

I enjoy following the old traditions. It just feels right to prepare for the new year by cleaning the house, paying off bills, and cooking traditional foods. I can almost feel a long line of those who have gone before me watching over my shoulder and nodding approval. I think they would approve a new custom we started at my house about ten years ago too, and that is the burning of our troubles in a New Year’s bonfire.

Fire has been used as a purifying force as far back as history can recall. In the British Isles there fire festivals dating to the times of the ancient Celts that are still observed, so our fire is not a new idea after all, but rather the continuation of a long tradition.

Each year we invite friends, family, and even strangers to send their troubles to us, to be burned in our fire on New Year’s eve. Most of these troubles are sent to us via email, from as far away as Australia and Taiwan. Many of the messages simply say, “burn this.” Over the years a few people have sent updates on their problems, letting us know what has improved in their lives and what new troubles have come their way. Once we received a message from someone that said, “no new troubles to send. Happy New Year!” Emails have come from as far away as Australia and Taiwan. Each message goes into the fire with prayers and loving thoughts for the sender.

We've been doing this for ten years now, and it's a tradition that has come to have a lot of meaning for my family. There are some people who only get in touch each year to send their troubles, and that's fine. I just like knowing they're out there. Some have told me they've started the tradition in their own homes, and that's the best of all.


As for me, I have my own troubles to burn this year. It has not been the best of years and I have several things I need to let go. As we gather around the fire this year, singing, talking and remembering, I will toss my own pieces of paper into the flames and watch the ashes drift away into the night air. Then I will look ahead to the new year knowing that those troubles are behind me, and a new year, filled with promise, awaits. 

Now, here's my original post:

Do you have special plans for your New Year's celebration?

Do you observe certain traditions and customs?

Do you have New Year's superstitions?

Do you prepare special foods for luck and health?

Or do you just go to bed at your usual time?

As you might know from a previous post, we build a New Year's bonfire in which we burn all the things that are worrying us and those who send their troubles to us to burn.

We stay up late, share music and stories, have lots of food on hand. (You can read all about last year's celebration here.) The kids beat pots and pans to celebrate, the adults sip champagne, and we wake up the quiet night of the ridge with our noise. Far away we can usually hear fireworks and guns going off as neighbors on distant hills celebrate in their own ways.

  • I watch for the first-footer too, trying to make sure it's a dark-haired man who leaves through a different door than the one through which he entered. In Scotland, this first-footer should carry in a small lump of coal for the fire--at my house, a log for the wood stove might be more appropriate! (Last year I wrote this post about five ways to celebrate.)

    Other things I do to ensure a good year:
  • Listen up! The first words I hear after the year changes might carry portents for the rest of the year.
  • Do things I enjoy on New Year's Day. This often includes touching base with my family and planning the garden with seed catalogs in hand.
  • We used to have to work every New Year's Eve and New Year's day. Now it's important to me to be home because it seems to impact how the rest of my year will go. Superstitious? Yeah!
  • Spend no money. An old superstition says that nothing should go out, not even dust or the trash. I don't know about that, but not spending on New Year's is another of those precedent-setting things for the coming year.
  • There are conflicting world opinions about sweeping on New Year's. Some say you will sweep out your luck, others sweep out the old year's dust. So I sweep if it's needed!
  • My mother always said that if you cried on New Year's, you'd cry all year. true? I don't know, but I try not to cry ;-)
As for food:
We always eat cabbage (with wrapped coins mixed in--I think this was a way to get kids to eat cabbage, one of the few vegetables available in winter in the old days, but probably not a favorite with kids then either! My sons were always on the hunt for rthe coins, but the deal was they had to eat all their cabbage to keep the coins. Quarters were the favorite, of course.), The cabbage can be coleslaw, of course, although somehow that seems like cheating.
Black-eyed peas are on the menu, too--my version mixes the peas with Ro-Tell Tomatoes and onions--spicy and good. And ham--yumm!

So share! What are your plans? What will you cook? What will you do or not do to celebrate and to guarantee your good luck?
For more ideas for food and celebration, try these websites:

New Year's Day traditions and superstitions

list of 13 New Year's superstitions--an unlucky number for luck?

Food Network's gallery of recipes

How to make Hoppin' John to spice up those black-eyed peas (but I like my version best!)

And lastly:




Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

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