Published: March 9, 2010


In many parts of EUROPE old superstitions held that the first person to cross one’s threshold after the start of the new year determined the household’s luck for the coming year (see also CHRISTMAS IN ESTONIA; CHRISTMAS IN GERMANY; CHRISTMAS IN GREECE; CHRISTMAS IN IRELAND; CHRISTMAS IN ITALY; NEW YEAR’S DAY). That person was called the “firstfooter.” People with certain physical characteristics were deemed lucky firstfooters. In most places people welcomed dark-haired men as desirable firstfooters whose visit would confer luck on the entire household. By contrast, women and fair-haired or red-headed men were often deemed unlucky firstfooters whose visit hastened the coming of unfortunate events.

Scotland and England
The folklore of Scotland and ENGLAND contains many references to firstfooters. The earliest historical records of firstfooting in Britain date back to the eighteenth century. Although found in many places throughout Britain, the custom appears to have been most strongly upheld in lowlands Scotland and northern England. There people awaited firstfooters in the early morning hours of January first. In many places custom dictated that firstfooters offer householders small GIFTS of food, spirits, fuel, and money as symbols of prosperity in the coming year. In some places the firstfooter delivered a sprig of GREENERY; in others salt was included in the lucky offerings. Usually the firstfooter exchanged warm greetings with family members upon entering the house, but in some locales he or she said nothing until stirring the fire or adding more fuel to it. Householders in return treated the firstfooter to food and drink and sometimes money, too. Some found this hospitality quite tempting. In Edinburgh, youth with the required physical characteristics sometimes fought one another for the opportunity to go firstfooting in the wealthier neighborhoods, where the rewards given to desirable first-footers were greatest.
Although many communities favored dark-haired men as firstfoot-ers, other communities preferred women, children, fair-headed men, or even red-headed men. If the required characteristics occurred infrequently within the community, some locales actually searched out and hired a firstfooter to make these midnight calls. In addition to gender and hair color, several other physical characteristics disposed people favorably or unfavorably to a firstfooter. In many places people preferred a young, healthy, and good-looking firstfooter. According to popular beliefs, the flat-footed, lame, sickly, or cross-eyed brought bad luck with them. In some places, people whose eyebrows met were considered unlucky. If one’s household happened to be jinxed by the untimely arrival of an unlucky firstfooter, folklore provided a number of remedies. In areas where people placed a lot of store in firstfooting, however, women and other people who would be unwelcome as firstfooters were careful to delay any new year visits until after their neighbors had all received a firstfooter.
Similar superstitions applied to first encounters on the road after the start of the new year. Some deemed it lucky if the first person one met was a child, or if one’s first encounter was with an oxcart. Meeting a beggar, sexton (church custodian), or gravedigger fore-shadowed unpleasantness to come. Many thought it especially lucky to meet someone whose arms were full, and unlucky to come across someone who wasn’t carrying anything.
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