The first visitor to enter a house on New Year’s morning is commonly known in Great Britain as the First Foot. In Yorkshire he is sometimes called the Lucky Bird, in the Isle of Man, the Quaaltagh. Wherever he appears, he is a personage of great importance. He may be a chance caller, or a man on some errand unconnected with the anniversary or he may be the ceremonial First Foot who comes on purpose to let the New Year into the house and bring good luck to the family. Whichever he is, he is traditionally supposed to influence the fortunes of the householders in the following twelve months, both by the gifts he brings and by his own character and appearance. Hence it is essential everywhere that he should be an individual with certain definite qualities, though what these are varies a little from one region to another.
In Scotland and northern England, the custom of First-Footing in the early hours of January 1st is still kept up with great vigour. The First Foot comes as soon
as possible after midnight has struck. He brings symbolic gifts of food or fuel or money as tokens of prosperity in the year that has just begun. Sometimes, instead of these presents, or in addition to them, he carries a bunch of evergreens as a promise of continuing life. Nothing must be taken out of the house before these gifts have been brought in, nor should any one go outside until he has arrived. He must be admitted by the front door and, since he is a luck-bringer, he must be hospitably entertained with food and plentiful supplies of wine or spirits.
Usually, the First Foot greets all within as he crosses the threshold, and is at once loudly welcomed in return. In some parts of Scotland, however, he does not speak until he has laid a peat or a coal upon the fire. This silent entry and first concern with the hearth, the life-centre of the house, has been recorded in other regions also, and may perhaps represent an older form of the rite. In his English Festivals (1947), Lawrence Whistler describes an impressive version of the ceremony, in which the First Foot carried an evergreen branch in one hand and a sprig of mistletoe in the other. He entered in silence, crossed the room to the hearth, and there laid the green branch upon the flames and the mistletoe on the mantelpiece above. No one spoke while he did this, and only when he turned to wish the assembled company a happy New Year was the general silence broken.
The ceremonial First Foot may be one of a band of young men going round from house to house, or a friend of the family who has arranged to let the New Year in for them. Sometimes a man of the right type will undertake to visit every house in a given street or district. Strictly speaking, the First Foot should always be someone from outside the home, but occasionally, when no such early morning visitor is expected, a male member of the household will go out just before midnight and be ceremonially let in again as soon as the hour has struck, with the appropriate gifts in his hand. These, in England, are usually a piece of bread and a piece of coal, as symbols of food and warmth and a coin or a little salt to ensure wealth in the coming year. In Scotland, a bottle of whisky is often included, or a compound of spirits, beer, sugar, and eggs known as a Het Pint. Round Dundee, and in the fishing villages of the East Coast, a red herring is a lucky gift, as a promise of good fishing to come; and in some Scottish rural areas a sheaf of wheat, symbolizing a good corn-harvest, is often carried.