Guest Author - Phyllis Doyle Burns
Appalachian regions were settled by people from many countries. One of the largest group of immigrants were the Scotch and Irish. Here are some of their New Year customs, traditions, and superstitions that have stayed with them and are faithfully observed each year by many in Appalachia and back in the old country.
Beginning the New Year with a clean house is an ancient custom in Ireland. This thorough cleaning is symbolic of bringing in a fresh, clean start to the New Year. Having a full pantry and coal in the cellar on New Year's eve was in hopes that the home would be stocked with good provisions all year.
It was customary in the old days to take some Christmas bread and bang the walls and doors with it. This chases out any bad luck and welcomes good spirits.
On New Years Eve, a very old custom is to set the table with a plate for any loved ones who had passed away that year -- to leave the door unlatched lets them know they are remembered and their spirits are welcome. The entire family gather round the table, have a hearty meal, reminisce and together they countdown to the New Year.
Young maidens would put a sprig of mistletoe under their pillows before going to sleep, so they would dream of their future husband to be.
As in Scotland, the Irish believed in the old custom of the first foot to cross the threshold of the home in the New Year. If this "first-footer" was a tall man with dark hair, that was a sign of good luck for the household for the year.
Hogmanay is what the Scots call the last day of the year, and is part of the celebrations for bringing in the New Year. In northeast Scotland, people of Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire love to gather and watch the fireball swinging event. The participants take chicken wire and make a ball of up to two feet in diameter and fill it with dry flammable material, like newspapers, sticks and such. A three foot piece of nonflammable rope or chain is attached to the ball. When the bell at Old Town House rings at the stroke of midnight, the balls are lit. The participants start swinging the ball of fire in circles over their head and begin the march from the Mercat Cross on High Street to the Cannon then back to the Mercat Cross. Any balls that still burn at the end of the march are tossed into the harbour. Over time, new performances have been added for the enjoyment of the observers. Fire poi (fire dancing and fire spinning), a pipe band and street drumming is very much enjoyed by the spectators -- with a fireworks display after the last fireball has been thrown into the harbour.
A very old custom in Scotland is called "First-Footer". The first person to step into the household on New Years day is the first footer. Typically, the first footer should be male and tall with dark hair. This is bringing in good fortune to the household for the year. If he brings wood for the fire or food for the table, that is even a better sign of a good year to come.
I bid you a Happy New Year with an old Irish toast: May your troubles be less, your blessings be more -- and nothing but happiness come through your door.