These days, when we think of New Year, parties, champagne and celebration spring to mind. Once upon a time however, it was more about getting through a quiet night. 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.
Irish New Year's Eve traditions in Ireland long ago were important in that they determined the luck of the house for the coming Year and many traditional Irish superstitions existed around this day.
Anything that happened on this day was considered ominous for the future and the nearer to the midnight hour when the year actually began, the more significant. It was believed that there was only a certain amount of luck in the world and you had to do everything you could to make sure you got your share of it!
In Ireland long ago it was important to begin the New Year with a spotlessly clean house signifying a fresh start to the New Year.
A popular new years eve traditional Irish belief was that the first person to enter the house after midnight should be black haired and also male to guarantee the luck of the house for the coming year. If it was anyone with red hair it would bring hardship and grief! To prevent this, families sometimes sent out a dark haired member of the family immediately after midnight and had them walk back in though the door. All dark haired neighbourhood boys would visit the houses and be welcomed with gifts of sweets or money.
Also known as “Oíche na Coda Móire,”- ‘the night of the big portion’ since people would eat a larger than normal meal to ensure food in plenty for the coming year. Another way of ensuring plenty was to make a cake which was then pounded against the door of the house three times while a prayer was said by the housewife. This would chase the bad luck out of the house and invite the good spirits in. In other areas the man of the house would take three bites out of the cake and then throw it against the front door, in the name of the Trinity and banish hunger from the house. After this the family would then gather up the fragments of the cake and eat it.
Many farmers repeated this ceremony at the door of the byre to ensure plentiful fodder for the cows.
People tried to ensure that no food was taken away from the house on New Years Eve and beggars knew better than to approach a house looking for food.
Another New Years Eve Irish tradition was that young girls put mistletoe under their pillows on New Year’s Eve, in hopes of dreaming about their future husband.
On New Year’s Eve night, families would remember those who has passed away that year before by setting a place for them at the dinner table and leaving the door unlatched.
Anyone entering the house after midnight by the front door would leave by the back door for good luck.
Well into the evening on New Year eve in Ireland there would always be a small group gathered around the fireplace, laughing and joking. Sooner or later, the conversation would turn to reminiscing about Ireland. The old ones, well on their way with a few glasses of the hard stuff, would get all misty-eyed as they remembered times past and the stories would begin in the light of just the fire and candles burning in the windowsill.
There is an Irish tradition of predicting the political future of the country by checking which way the wind blows at midnight on New Year’s Eve. If the wind is from the west, there is a chance that good fortune will reign that year. If the wind is from the east, however, the British will prevail. Mistletoe was handed out to ward off bad luck, and single women put a sprig of mistletoe under their pillows in hopes of catching a dream about their future husbands. Another tradition peculiar to Ireland is pounding on the doors and windows of the house with bread. This practice was to chase out evil spirits and ensure bread for the upcoming year.
After the stroke of midnight the man of the house would recite the following verse:
“May your nets always be full,
Your pockets never empty,
Your horse not cast a shoe,
Nor the devil look at you
In the coming year.”
The Baking and Breaking of the New Years Eve Cake
This fine old festival, whose origin is lost amidst the Pagan darkness that surrounds so many of the customs of this country, and yet render dear to its inhabitants by the joyous association of childhood, like many others, is now passing away not only from the practice but also from the recollection of the people; yet they delight to talk of those times when the worthy good man, either in "the big house' or the "good woman" was to have her New Years's eve Cake; and the sly invitation was sure to gather all who cherished genuine wit and humour to witness the making of the cake — that important portion of the meal — to enjoy the drollery of him or her installed as high priest, and to sing the required incantations to secure the success of the charmed cake. This, having been once fairly placed on the griddle, (in those days our forefathers knew little of the oven for such use) became an object of interest to more than one, and many were the sly colleens who, when the lad of there choice placed in the fire a sprig of the still verdant holly or ivy that decorated the kitchen, would adroitly steal in another little sprig to the blazing pile, to see if her fortune burned and kept pace with his; if it did so (like the burnt nuts of All-Hallows's ever) a smooth current of happiness for the coming year was indicated.
Those were, indeed, days of simplicity, when the baron and the peasant met alike under the same roof; when even the humble itinerant fiddler who played his way through the country was expected to witness the next aspirant to manhood lay hold of the well-made and substantial cake, and, with his mimic strength, dash it against the door, when it was shivered to pieces, whilst the assembled witnesses of the scene offered up in spirit an humble but fervent prayer that cold, want, or hunger might not enter that door for the ensuing year. The fragments of the cake were then scrambled for, and certain was he or she who succeeded in securing the first fragment that touched the ground, so that they too, would have a home and a New Year's Cake ere the next year was out.
To this succeeded a scene of romping, eating, and drinking, dancing and singing, such as can only be witnesses in Ireland; and the mirth continues up to the hour that marks our passage from one year into another, when a fervent prayer is offered up to Him who that brought us thus to a new year, and enabled us to light another.
We recollect, when a schoolboy, thinking with delight over our promised enjoyment of a New Year's Cake, and of all our schoolfellows having the same promise of enjoyment held out to them; whereas we believe that the practice is now only carried out in the more comfortable and wealthy home of the south and midland counties of poor old Ireland.