Beware of redheads on New Year’s

-A A +A
By Wendy Binnie

Today is Boxing Day. Next week on this day we will already be in a new year, Jan. 2, 2009. Many will have sung Auld Lang Syne, or part of it, on New Years’ Eve.

But there is another song, now lost, which was sung in England along with Burns’ well-known poem. If memory serves correctly,  it goes something like the following:

I saw the old homesteads and faces I loved,

I saw England’s valleys and dells.

I listened with joy as I did when a boy,

to the sound of the old village bells.

The log was burning brightly,

t’was a night to banish all sin.

For the bells were ringing the

old year out and the New Year in.

Christmas 2008 and the gift-giving is now over, but do people know it dates only to Victorian times? Before then it was more common to exchange gifts on New Year’s Day or Twelfth Night, Jan. 6.

From the English we get a story to explain the custom of hanging stockings from the mantelpiece. Father Christmas once dropped some gold coins while coming down the chimney. The coins would have fallen through the ash grate, and been lost, if they hadn’t landed in a stocking that had been hung out to dry.

Since that time children have continued to hang out stockings in hopes of finding them filled with gifts.

The hanging of greens, such as holly and ivy, is a British winter tradition with origins far before the Christian era. Greenery was probably used to lift sagging spirits in the dead of winter. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe is descended from ancient Druid rites.

In England, New Year’s is celebrated more than it used to be. Traditionally it was not as widely celebrated as Christmas, but in 2000 there was a change from the tradition of house parties. The English never used to celebrate the New Year with fireworks (they were reserved for Bonfire Night,) but starting a few years ago, people all across the country were setting off fireworks at the stroke of midnight.

Traditionally, at midnight, people opened the back door (to let the old year out) and ask a dark-haired man to come through the front door carrying salt, coal and bread to let the new year in. This meant that the following year everyone in the house would have enough to eat (bread), enough money (salt) and be warm enough (coal.)

On New Year’s Day (actually from the stroke of midnight) the tradition of first footing is also observed but this is mainly in the Northern counties of the country, closer to Scotland. The Scots did not “merry-make” at Christmas as much as their English neighbors. (Could be a holdover from John Knox, who, as leader of the Scottish Reformation, sternly repressed the observance of Christmas, Easter and the various saints’ days.)

Their celebration was reserved for Hogmanay, New Year’s Eve. The word derives from a kind of oat cake that was traditionally given to children on the eve of the New Year.

In Edinburgh, the celebrations always include a massive party from Prince’s Street to the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle. Unfortunately due to overcrowding in the past, the event is now ticket only.

The first person to set foot in a house on New Year’s Eve is believed to affect the fortunes of the residents. Strangers are thought to bring good luck. Depending on the area, some Scots prefer a dark or fair-haired stranger to “first-foot” the house.

The “first-footer” expects some recompense for his labor. This is usually a large tumbler of the finest Scotch whiskey. Scotland is a very welcoming place for strangers at New Year!

Some young men take their job extremely seriously and go to many homes. They are the ones with the massive hangovers on New Year’s Day.

In Wales, caroling at Christmas is extremely popular, though nobody has yet explained why the Welsh have such fine voices. It is called “eisteddfodde” and is often accompanied by a harp.

In some rural areas a villager is chosen to be the Mari Llwyd. This person travels around the town draped in white and carrying a horse’s skull on a long pole. Anyone given the “bite” by the horse’s jaws must pay a fine.

The Welsh also celebrate New Year’s Eve, though not as vigorously as the Scots. The little song printed above may well be of Welsh origin.

New Year’s Eve is called “Nos Galan” in Welsh, and whilst they also believe in letting out the old year and letting in the new, if the first visitor in the New Year is a woman and a man opens the door it’s considered bad luck. Woe betides if the first man to cross the threshold in the New Year is a redhead – that is terribly bad luck.

People in Wales also believe all debts should be paid off before the New Year begins. Tradition states that ending a year in debt means a whole new year of debt.

On New Year’s Day, “Dydd Calan” in Wales, the children get up early to visit their neighbors and sing songs. They are given coins, mincemeat pies, apples and other sweets for their singing. This stops at midday.

Depending on the area, some Welsh still celebrate Dydd Calan on Jan. 12 for reasons unknown.

The great and sadly missed Dylan Thomas gave us A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Oh Dylan, we would have loved to have read “A Child’s New Year’s in Wales.”

All Citizen readers are wished a more prosperous, healthy and war-free year as we welcome a new president.

… As I was saying …

Wendy England Binnie, a novelist and op-ed columnist, lives in Oak Trace Villas. Contact her at smcnews@earthlink.net.