In many areas of Ireland New Year’s Day is overshadowed by the traditional observances and festivities that accompany the Twelve Days of Christmas, which run from Christmas Eve to the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January. In many Irish Protestant communities New Year’s Day was traditionally believed to mark the end of the Christmas season, and was often referred to in nineteenth century sources as ‘Little Christmas’ – one of the many names applied to the Feast of the Epiphany which marked the end of the Christmas season in Catholic households.
As the first day of the year many traditions associated with New Year’s Day are tied up with encouraging luck for the coming year. No dust, dirt or slop should be brushed out of the house on New Year’s Day, as it was believed that in carrying out these tasks the house’s luck could be swept away for the next twelve months. In a similar manner it was considered unlucky to open a grave on New Year’s Day as doing so was believed to encourage death throughout the coming year. In order to facilitate the traditional two-night wake, when a person died on the 30th or 31st of December attempts were generally made to, at least, start the digging of the the departed’s grave in the old year.
The New Year’s Day tradition of first-footing, although more prevalent in Scotland and Northern England, was widely observed in many urban areas as well as parts of the north east of Ireland a generation ago. Belief holds that the first person to enter the house, after the clock strikes midnight represents the household’s luck for the following twelve months; a dark-haired male visitor is considered to bring luck with him into the household, while a female visitor, especially one with red hair, was considered to be an omen of bad luck. In many instances efforts were made to ensure that the first visitor on New Year’s Day was a dark-haired male; if a dark-haired male was present in a household on New Year’s Eve he would often to step outside a few minutes prior to midnight and then call back when the year had changed. To secure the households look in some accounts of the tradition it was considered necessary for the gentleman to bring a gift, often silver coins and food often when making the New Year visit. In parts of Ireland hospitality required that visitors to a house on New Year’s Day should eat or drink before making their departure, while food also featured in a County Leitrim belief noted by Leland L Duncan in the first quarter of the twentieth century; the ‘first thing you eat in the morning [of New Year’s Day] will cure you throughout the year if you fall sick.’
Outdoor activities are also traditional on New Year’s Day, which in common with Christmas Day and sometimes the whole Christmas period, is traditionally a time for playing sports and games in Ireland. In coastal areas, in places as far flung as Ballintoy in County Antrim and the Blasket Islands off the Coast of County Kerry, it was customary for the local inhabitants to participate in hurling matches on New Year’s Day. Celebrations and boisterous behavior often followed in the aftermath of these matches; in the Ballintoy two hundred years ago, for example, the Reverend Robert Trail noted that the New Year’s Day hurling previously ‘ended by drinking whiskey and broken heads: but of the late years, only young people appear on these occasions, and the day concludes with drunkenness or riot.’
Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. Dublin, London and Edinburgh, 1814-19.
Mc Glinchey, Charles. The Last of the Name. Edited by Brian Friel. Belfast, 1986.
Ó Crohan, Tomás. The Islandman. Translated by Robin Flower. Dublin, 1929; 1937.
Omorethi. ‘Customs Peculiar to Certain Days, Previously Observed in County Kildare.’ Journal of the Co. Kildare Archaeological Society and Surrounding Districts V (1906-1908), 439-454.
Thiselton Dyer, T. R. (Rev). British Popular Customs Past and Present: Illustrating the Social and Domestic Manners of the People. London 1900.
Various articles from the journal Folklore, 1894-1923.