These days, when we think of New Year, parties, champagne and celebration spring to mind. Once upon a time however, it was more about a quiet night in. The New Year was never really a big festival in Ireland, with the focus more on the necessities of a farming calendar. For a largely agricultural country, the fortunes of the crops were paramount.
What traditions that do exist reflect this strong concern about the year ahead. One belief was that no water could be drawn from the well after sunset on New Year's Eve. All water needed by the household had to be inside before then, and none of it could leave the house until the following day, otherwise the family would suffer a drought. Similarly there was a pervasive belief that no money should be spent on New Year's Day. Nothing could be brought out of the house and anyone visiting should make sure they came with a gift. Giving something away meant giving your money away and what sensible person would do that?
Midnight on the 31st came with traditions of its own. First footing, being the first visitor to a house, was a popular custom but your reception very much depended on who you were. A dark haired man would be greeted with food and drink (unless he arrived empty handed of course), as his arrival meant a year of plenty and good luck. But a red headed woman, even if her arms were laden with all the traditional first footing tokens, bread, coal and the rest, meant ill fortune, and so had better stay away.
A red headed woman, even if her arms were laden with bread, coal and the rest, meant ill fortune
The night was certainly one of superstition. If you wanted to dream of your true love, then New Years' Eve was the time to try a little bit of folk magic. The exact combination of herbs varies from source to source, but traditional Christmas evergreens like holly, mistletoe and ivy feature in various accounts. Ivy would probably make least mess of the sheets…
As the New Year dawned, for many, thoughts turned to cleaning. In some places it was a custom to wipe the walls of the house with Christmas bread, mopping up bad luck like gravy. For others something far more vigorous was needed as the whole house was swept and scrubbed to banish the previous year's misfortune.
In some places it was a custom to wipe the walls of the house with Christmas bread, mopping up bad luck like gravy
Given Ireland's history, it's hardly surprising that so many of these customs relate to keeping hardship at bay. Levels of poverty were high throughout the 19th century and beyond, and for those who felt powerless, superstition held a powerful attraction. Many of the deepest customs relate to that agricultural cycle, so January 1st was always a slightly arbitrary date. Until the switch from the Julian to Gregorian calendar in 1752, the legal year began on March 25th, and the Celtic year began on November 1st, so that January date was something of a half-hearted festival steeped in superstition.