Sixty-one years ago, I was given a Letts Schoolgirl’s Diary as a Christmas present. The first entry for 1953 states: “I let the New Year in.” That succinct sentence triggers a flood of memories in me. It was the very first time I was allowed to stay up until midnight; I even had a sip of sweet sherry, and was kissed very chastely under the mistletoe.
Letting the New Year in was something very special at that time, not only because it made me feel grown up to join in, but also because old customs and superstitions still lingered on in the Black Country, and the occasion impressed itself on me very deeply.
First footing was deemed to determine whether a household would have a good or bad year. The first foot over the threshold after midnight should belong to a tall, dark (preferably handsome) male, a stranger or at least not one of the family, carrying a lump of coal, a bottle of ale or spirits, a cake or mince-pie, and salt. These signified a steady supply of warmth, food and health for the inhabitants, and the first footer had to come in at one door, pass right through the house and out at another door. It was very bad luck to go out through the same door, as it symbolised luck turning its back on the house. Groups of men and lads would visit each of the houses in the neighbourhood in turn, bringing their gifts and singing a traditional ditty as they knocked on the door.
I had heard these in previous years, lying in bed and listening as our next-door neighbour, Jack, came first-footing, announcing his arrival with a loud bang of his iron-worker’s fist on the door and a song that included the chorus “Wo’ yo’ cum dahn un’ let we in …” (Won’t you come down and let us in …”).
I never heard anyone else sing that particular ditty. The usual Black Country wassailing song went:
“The cock sat up in the yew tree
The hen came chuckling by;
I wish you a merry Christmas
And every day a pie;
A pie, a pie, a peppercorn,
A good fat pig as ever was born,
A pocketful of money,
A cellarful of beer;
A horse and a gig
And a good fat pig
to last you all the year…”
The first lines about Christmas were omitted on New Year’s Eve.
Our neighbour wasn’t tall or handsome, but he was dark, sufficient to satisfy the essential requirement of the superstition which apparently goes back to the days when a big blond stranger banging on your door at midnight probably signified a Viking raid (the Black Country lies right on the frontier between Danelaw and the Kingdom of Mercia). A strapping dark-haired chap would be welcome as he was obviously no Viking, and likely to be a match for any that might appear. The proviso that he should be handsome was probably added by the womenfolk.
The first footer would place the coal on the fire (yes, we all had coal fires in those days), the salt in the kitchen and the mince-pie with the bottle on the living room table in the expectation of seeing the contents shared. He was also entitled to a kiss under the mistletoe from all the women in the house, a right claimed by the whole gang of first footers who all swore they were the first one in.
Then the unruly bunch, gradually getting tipsier and bolder as the night wore on, would leave through the back door, stumble in the darkness round the house to the front and thence on to their next port of call. Sometimes they forgot which houses they had already been to and would visit again.
New Year’s Eve 1952 was the first time I was old enough to be part of this.
Ten years later I brought my German fiancé home for Christmas and New Year, a bemusing experience for him. Our English Christmas, with parties and jollity, so different from a German one, seemed to him like Carnival. And on New Year’s Eve – well, there he was: a dark-haired stranger. A ready-made first footer. He was hustled out of the house at five minutes to midnight, given all the requisite accoutrements, and made to stay out in the freezing cold (it was a particularly severe winter) until five past twelve. Then he was brought in, relieved of his burden, and just as he was beginning to thaw found himself pushed out through the kitchen door into the back garden, from where he had to find his way back to the front door before he could be re-admitted and finally get warm again. I believe that was his first and last English New Year.
The custom hasn’t died out completely even now, although you no longer see merry men lurching from house to house. Still, a neighbour who used to be dark in his youth always makes sure that his is the first foot across our threshold on New Year’s Day, even if we have to wait nowadays till 10 am. And he no longer brings us a lump of coal.