Here’s an old custom that involves coal.
In British and Manx folklore, the first-foot is the first person to enter a home on New Year’s Day and is regarded as a bringer of good fortune for the coming year. Similar practices are also found in the new year traditions of other countries.
Generally, the first-footer should be a tall dark-haired male. If the first-footer enters the house empty-handed, that will bring bad luck. Instead, the first-foot should bring gifts, which can include: a silver coin, shortbread or a black bun, salt, coal, and a ‘wee dram’ of uisge beatha or ‘the water of life,’ the name given by ancient Celts to the fiery amber nectar now called Scotch whisky. They represent prosperity, food, flavor, warmth for the house, and good cheer — the whisky is used to toast the new year.
Naturally, food and drink will be given to the first-foot and any other guests, and serious partying will continue. Immediately after midnight it is traditional to sing Robert Burns’ Auld Lang Syne, published by him first in 1788, although the tune was in print over 80 years before this.
The origin of first-footing is uncertain, although it’s possible that many of the traditional Hogmanay celebrations were originally brought to Scotland by the invading Vikings in the early 8th and 9th centuries.
Traditionally, the first-footer should be someone who was not already in the house when midnight struck — hence the Scottish party tradition of having one guest leave just before the bells so they can knock on the door as the new year begins. Having a doctor or minister appear at the door as a first-footer is also bad luck — presumably due to their association with illness and death.
Several traditions should be taken care of before midnight on 31 December. These include cleaning the house, taking out the ashes from the fire, and paying off all your debts before “the bells” of midnight. These actions are meant to clear out the remains of the old year, have a clean break and welcome in a young New Year on a happy note. Good luck with the mortgage!
In Scotland, the celebration of the New Year is more important than Christmas, which was virtually banned for around 400 years. This dates back to the years of Protestant Reformation, when the stern Kirk proclaimed Christmas as a Popish or Catholic feast, and must be banned. Up until the 1950s, many Scots worked over Christmas and celebrated their winter solstice holiday at New Year.
Some New Year blessings that I particularly like:
—Plenty potatoes and enough herring.
—Bread and cheese, butter and beef, and the flea’s tooth, may it not be well.
I’d never heard of a “black bun,” so I looked it up. It is a type of fruit cake completely covered with pastry and meant to be enjoyed at Hogmanay, along with whisky. It typically contains raisins, currants, almonds, citrus peel, allspice, ginger, cinnamon and black pepper. The term “black bun” was first recorded in 1898, and may have been a result of Robert Louis Stevenson referring to the cake as “a black substance inimical to life.”
Ah, but whisky is the water of life and will counteract any bad effects of black bun. Even calories, perhaps?