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11 forgotten New Year's traditions from the UK


For many people, New Year’s Eve is a time for getting drunk with friends and family, singing, and maybe listening to live music. Well, our ancestors enjoyed a lot of that too, but they also had many weird and wonderful New Year’s customs that are now consigned to history.

Here we look at 11 forgotten New Year traditions from across the British Isles.

1. Ring in the New Year - Derbyshire

In this long-lost Peak District practice, on the last day of the year, a large creamy drink called a ‘posset’ would be served at a house party. Made from beer, eggs, spices, milk, and currants, this beverage was normally served hot, but on this occasion cold.

The lady of the house would then place her wedding ring into the frothy mixture. Each partygoer would then extract a ladleful and put it in their cup. It was believed that whoever had the ring in their drink would be married before the end of the coming year.

This pleasing practice started centuries ago and was still current in the 19th century.

2. Sooty and Weep? - Isle of Man

A forgotten custom on the Isle of Man is that of forecasting by sooty footprint. This ashy auspice would either be good or bad news for the homeowners.

In the island’s rural farmhouses and worker’s cottages, the cold remnants of the fire would spread out evenly across the ground floor on New Year's Eve.

The following morning, the householder would come down and expect to find a boot print in the cinders. If the toes of the print pointed to the door, this was an omen of a death in the family in the coming year. If it pointed away from the door, then this was a prediction that a baby would be born.

3. Tar Very Much – Moray

In the dim past, a strange ritual took place every New Year’s Eve in the small coastal town of Burghead, 35 miles northeast of Inverness.

After dark, the town’s youngsters would go down to the seafront with a large barrel, fill it with tar and wood, and set it on fire. This blazing barrel was known as the ‘Clavie’.

Next, men would take turns in racing around the town with the Clavie on their shoulders. Later that night it would be set on a special spot called the ‘Durie’, burnt out, and then the barrel broken up. Spectators would scramble to take embers home with them, where the pieces would serve as protective charms against demons and witches for the coming year.

Anciently this ceremony was a solemn occasion, but by the 19th century had become more of a New Year’s lark for the youth of the town.

4. Cake Walk – Ireland

A curious New Year’s Eve tradition was recorded in Ireland in the early 19th century. According to this custom, the head of each household would take a freshly made cake, go outside, and launch the baked goods outside of their front door. This was said to stave off hunger for the rest of the coming year.

5. Best Foot Forward - Lancashire

In Lancashire and many other areas, a woman or fair-haired man would bring bad luck to a household if they were the first to cross the threshold on New Year’s Day. Dark-haired men were considered the bringers of good luck, and in some places, such men would even go wandering around on New Year’s Eve offering to be the ‘first foot’ through the door at midnight.

On the Isle of Man, there was a similar historic New Year’s custom called the ‘qualtagh’, in which young people would sing at people’s doors and then be invited in for a bite to eat or a drink. They would of course always ensure that the person who entered the house first (‘qualtagh’ being the term for this person) was a dark-haired member of the troupe.

6. Street Food - East Sussex

An olden days observance in Hastings was for the people to go to their windows on New Year’s Day and throw food such as nuts, apples, oranges, bread, and even coins onto the street below. Fishermen and ‘fisher-boys’ would then dash about collecting the offerings. By the late 19th century this ritual had virtually died out.

7. For God’s Cakes - Coventry

An ancient custom particular to the city of Coventry was the making and selling of ‘God Cakes’. These cakes were an inch thick, filled with mincemeat – and triangle-shaped. They were made and sold on New Year’s Day.

In August 2012 the Coventry God Cake was officially relaunched.

8. Hot in the City - Scotland

A long-lost New Year’s rite in Scotland is the ‘hot-pint’. Served warm in a large flagon or kettle, the hot-pint consisted of strong beer, whisky, eggs, and spices, and sugar. At midnight the party would pass around the flagon, and all have a dram of the hot-pint, before shaking hands, embracing, and then singing and dancing.

People would also typically venture out into the street. In the Edinburgh of centuries past, the early hours of New Year’s morning would see the streets heaving with people partying with their hot-pints.

In 1812 however, an ugly New Year’s night saw this custom drop off dramatically. A gang of young robbers decided to take advantage of the mirth on this particular night. They went out into the streets of Edinburgh and mugged many revellers. Two people, including a police constable, died from the violence meted out by the hoodlums. Three of the ringleaders of the 1812 robberies were executed for their crimes.

9. Fiddler on the Lap - Isle of Man

Twelfth Day (aka Epiphany, 6 January) has had many customs associated with it throughout history.

One peculiar practice on this day on the Isle of Man involved the island’s fiddlers. After playing their socks off at a bash in a tavern, barn, or farmhouse, everyone would gather around to watch a bizarre matchmaking ceremony.

The fiddler would go around the room and lay his head in the lap of each maiden. The question would then be asked of who was to marry the girl. With his head still in the girl’s lap, the fiddler would call out in a muffled voice the name of the man that she was to marry. The fiddler’s predictions were accepted by all present as reliable forecasts, and so there were either cries of joy or happiness, from the affected parties.

This folk ritual was known as ‘cutting off the fiddler’s head’ because this marked the end of the fiddler’s playing season.

10. No Tooling You - Wales

An ancient Twelfth Night (the night before Epiphany) tradition in parts of Wales was known as ‘tooling’, still reported as current in the 19th century. Tradesmen would go around local farmhouses and seek out the owner’s beer store. Then, the visitors would ceremoniously declare to the homeowner that they had left their tools behind their beer casks. The farmer would then give each man back his tool in the form of a mug of beer from the cask.

11. Pins and Beadles – London

One Twelfth Night tradition in London in the Georgian and early Victorian periods was a real crowd-pleaser. Young lads would hang around bakeries and cake shops and passers-by would be drawn to the shopfronts by the goods on offer. Once close enough, the boys would deftly attach the onlookers to the outside of the shop by driving a nail through their coats and into the window frames.

Sometimes up to ten people at a time would be squirming about trying to free themselves from a single shopfront, much to the amusement of the assembled crowd. Even the presence of the parish beadle (constable) was often no deterrent, as the beadle would share in the merriment.