“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.” J.M. Barrie
When I was a girl we often spent New Year’s Eve with my great grandparents. Unless a neighbour could be relied upon to spontaneously perform the service, the tallest, darkest man of the company would be ushered outside via the back door at five to midnight and the door locked behind them… Heaven forefend that a woman should enter first by accident!
Duly armed with a silver sixpence, a piece of coal and a slice of the rich, dark fruit cake to make sure the conditions for first footing were met… that there would always be wealth, food, and warmth in the home throughout the year…. They would be welcomed back in through the front door, not able to speak until the gifts were distributed. These first footers were called ‘lucky birds’ in my neck of the woods. The symbolic gifts were kept all year in a small box on the big mahogany dresser, while the old year’s cake and coal were given to the fire… and the old sixpence to the youngest.
As a young wife I kept this tradition, not through superstition but because it is a tradition… a bit of sympathetic magic that reaches far into our history and is backed by the centuries of its own evolution as a custom. I also kept an adopted one, learned from a Glaswegian friend, that as the house be on New Year’s Eve, so will it be all year… which meant a thorough clean, a well-stocked larder and those you love around you.
There is a lot in these old traditions, even on a purely practical level… it was absolutely true, of course, that there was always silver, coal and food in my great-grandparents house all year… even if only in the little inlaid box… and the care with which the household was prepared for the family celebration says a lot about how the family is likely to live for the rest of the year.
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