First-Foot Day, on January 1, is about celebrating the New Year as per the Scottish and North England tradition of bringing good luck upon your home by being the first person to set foot inside at the beginning of the year. Did you know that similar practices of first footing are also found in many traditions including Greek and Georgian traditions? This is not just it, many more interesting things surround this festival!
The belief is that the one who will first set foot in your house cannot be someone who was inside when midnight struck. It’s OK if an occupant of the house deliberately stays outside till midnight and then enters after midnight. Therefore, to observe this holiday, people stay just outside their homes until midnight of New Year’s Eve before going in.
History of First-Foot Day
The origins of the First-Foot traditions go as far back as the late 8th century Vikings’ invasions of England and Scotland. Some people say it was brought by the Vikings themselves. Back in the day when the Englanders and Scottish people used to get scared at the sight of a blond-haired stranger in their midst, the people used to shut their doors and pray for hope and luck to escape the dreadful invaders. In those times, the entry of a dark-haired person into a person’s home was considered a symbol of hope and relief for the people. The arrival of a blond stranger at your door means you are being invaded, causing fear and alarm. In some traditions, first-footing is celebrated with group singing of ‘Auld Lang Syne’.
Since then, this act has become a tradition in Scotland and Northern England where it is celebrated every year on January 1, at midnight, when the new year begins. As the people from the British Isles traveled to other areas, especially the U.S., the tradition followed and became part of cultures and societies in those areas.
The first footer must come bearing gifts: symbolic gifts such as a silver coin, shortbread, black bun, salt, coal, or whisky, and will be given food and drink in return by the inhabitants. But wait, there’s more! According to ancient folklore and tradition, the person who is first footing into the household should be a man, dark-haired, not fair, and must have flat feet. If he (traditionally male) carries coins, that would mean financial prosperity; short-bread is a sign of full rations in food; salt represents flavor; coal means warmth; and whiskey means celebration. Similar traditions have also been part of other cultures such as in Greece, Georgia, and Serbia, where a more or less similar concept is kept close to the heart and is celebrated on the same day.
The first-footer or the person who steps into the home following the start of a new year is seen as a bringer of good fortune. This person can be an occupant of the house but cannot be someone who was in the house when the clock strikes midnight.
Traditionally, young boys have been the first-footers for the communities. Dark-haired boys visit peoples’ homes in different areas and sing poems for them. For the inhabitants, the arrival of these boys would be a symbol of good fortune for the year, and as a token of their gratitude, they would share quality food and drink with the boys. Ever since the tradition of National First Foot Day has been kept alive and is celebrated every year on New Year’s Day.
The craze for First Foot Day was so popular in England and Scotland that, in those days, on New Year’s Day between midnight and one o’clock in the morning, the streets were more crowded than the homes as everybody wanted to first foot their way in. Today, the custom of first footing and the First Foot Day celebrations are observed in the U.K., U.S., and many areas places.
First-Foot Day timeline
The first Viking invasion of England happens in 793 A.D., destroying an English monastery.
The observance of the ritual of first footing begins, as a remedy against the blond-haired Vikings invaders.
Considering Christmas to be a papal feast, many protestants reject Christmas but give special attention to the tradition of First-Foot
Robert Burns writes a poem containing the text ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ which becomes a traditional song to sing on First Foot Day.
The tradition grows in popularity so much so that streets are often crowded between midnight and 1 A.M. that they normally are during the day.
Many people in England and Scotland celebrate First Foot Day.
Christmas becomes an official holiday in Scotland, making First Foot Day and New Year’s Day a bit more popular.
Many people across different countries and traditions observe First Foot Day.
First-Foot Day FAQs
Is it bad luck to be your own First-Foot?
No, you can be your own First-foot for the family if you stay out before midnight and then come in after midnight, but remember to come bearing gifts.
Why are people with blond hair considered a bad luck sign?
The Vikings who used to invade Scotland and Northern England were blond-haired. Since this tradition is Scottish, anything against the Scottish tradition can be considered as bad luck.
What should a First-Foot bring?
A first foot can bring anything from silver coins to bread, salt, coal, evergreen plants, or whisky. But should not come in empty-handed as it is considered to be a sign of bad luck.
How to celebrate First-Foot Day
Be a First-Footer
Visit a home. Take with you gifts such as bread, coal, or whisky for the family as a token of good luck.
Enable someone to be a First-Foot
Sponsor a poor man with the funds to buy the bread, salt, silver coin, coal, or whisky as the first foot for his family.
Sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’
Celebrate as the Scottish do; drink whisky and sing poems, as the tradition of the Scottish people entails.
5 Facts About First-Footing Everyone Should Know
In Scotland, the celebration of the First-Foot tradition is called 'Hogmanay.'
No Christmas, only First-Foot Day
For more than 400 years (until the '50s) the Scots did not celebrate Christmas. Men would rather gather food and coal for First-Foot Day.
Is it a Scottish or a Viking tradition?
There is confusion over its origin, but most historians agree on the tradition being Scottish.
The story of coal and salt
The first-footers are required to bring coal and salt because coal represents ‘warmth’ and salt represents ‘flavor.’
‘Auld Lang Syne’
This poem by Robert Burns was published in 1788, but the tune for this was in print 80 years before the poem itself.
Why We Love First-Foot Day
Who hates good luck?
If there’s one thing that we need at most times in our lives apart from hard work and dedication, it must be good luck. This tradition promises to give it to us, so, why not love it!
It teaches us the joy of giving and receiving
In today’s world, where everyone is busy in their own private little digital world, making an extra effort to bring bread and whisky as a first-foot tradition would be heartwarming. A little effort to stay outside in the cold waiting for midnight would be a good adventure and a time out from the digital world for anyone.
Celebrate the bond of family
The first-foot tradition signifies the bond of a family and how important it is to have a family. Using this day as an excuse to be together as a family and celebrate the new year is just something everyone needs.
First-Foot Day dates