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11 Unusual Victorian New Year's Traditions

Keith Johnston
New Year's Eve in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1876.
New Year's Eve in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1876. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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“We have been very gay; danced into the New Year, and again last night, and were very merry,” Queen Victoria wrote to her uncle, the King of Belgium, on January 4, 1843. She was six years into her lengthy reign (1837–1901), all of 23 years old, and apparently enjoying every minute of the New Year. For many Victorians, parties, dancing, and festive spirits were staples of New Year’s celebrations, just like today. Yet there were many other odd, quaint, and charming customs that for the most part are no longer with us. Below are 11 such Victorian New Year’s traditions.

1. Don’t let a woman be the first to enter your house in the new year.

Known as the “first-foot” or “first-footing,” this superstition from Scotland and Northern England held that it was bad luck for either a light-haired or (depending on the region) a dark-haired man to be the first to enter a home in the new year. Worse was to have a woman be the first to enter. In one Shropshire valley it was thought to be bad luck for a woman to enter the house at all before noon.

2. Don’t take anything out of your house without bringing something in.

Another superstition that persisted in some parts of Northern England was the belief that you shouldn’t take anything out of the house without first bringing something in. “Take out, then take in, / Bad luck will begin,” went one rhyme. “Take in, then take out, / Good luck comes about.”

3. Be a gentleman caller on New Year’s Day.

Women waiting for the gentlemen callers.
Women waiting for the gentlemen callers. / Heritage Images/Getty Images

The tradition of visiting friends and relations on New Year’s Day was more fashionable on the European continent than it was in Victorian England, but it was perhaps nowhere more extreme than in New York City, where it was a veritable sport. Young men would race around the city to visit (to call on) as many young women as possible. By the 1890s, the custom had fallen out of fashion in favor of more exclusive New Year’s Eve parties.

4. Throw bread at the door on New Year’s Eve.

By the Victorian era, this practice seems to have survived only “in the more comfortable and wealthy homes of the south and midland counties” of Ireland. People baked a large bread called barmbrack on New Year’s Eve. The man of the house then took three bites before throwing it against the door while those gathered prayed “that cold, want, or hunger might not enter” in the coming year.

5. Attend a “Watch Night” service on New Year’s Eve.

John Welsey, the founder of Methodism, revived the ancient tradition of “Watch Night” services—lengthy contemplative church services that lasted until midnight—in the 1740s to give coal miners something prayerful to do other than drinking in a pub. By the 19th century, these services became a New Year’s Eve tradition: something prayerful to do rather than drinking at a party.

6. Open a Bible at random to tell your future on New Year’s Day.

Known as “dipping,” this custom involved opening a Bible to a random page and, without looking, pointing to a particular passage. The selected excerpt was thought to predict the good or bad fortune of the person doing the dipping.

7. Force someone to ride the stang on New Year’s Day.

"Riding the stang" wasn't exactly a fun activity.
"Riding the stang" wasn't exactly a fun activity. / duncan1890/Getty Images

A medieval custom that survived into the Victorian period, “riding stang” was an act of mob violence in some parts of England in which, on New Year’s Day, a gang would abduct someone and force them to ride a pole (a “stang”) to the nearest pub and pay a fine to the crowd in order to be set free. It began as a way to shame and punish criminals or community members thought to be immoral, but by the 19th century became just a bit of New Year’s fun.

8. Eat a disgusting pie on New Year’s Eve.

Mince meat pies were a traditional Victorian treat for New Year’s, but one Mrs. Bliss provides a recipe for something much more epic. Her “New Year’s Pie” calls a boiled cow’s tongue stuffed inside a chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey stuffed inside a goose. The whole thing is then coated in a jelly made from beef’s feet. It puts the Turducken to shame!

9. Play a silly “Resolutions” party game at your New Year’s Eve party.

Victorians are often unfairly maligned as humorless bores, but this suggested New Year’s party game proves just how silly they could be. The method of play is simple: Write a resolution for yourself or a fellow player on a piece of paper and fold it up. Each player then draws a resolution and reads it aloud. The more ridiculous the resolution, the more laughter ensues. Some suggestions from an 1896 book of games include, “I must stop smoking in my sleep,” and “I must walk with my right foot on the left side.”

10. Think about New Year’s Eve as a kind of funeral.

The notion that Victorians could be a bit morose, even on New Year’s Eve, is not wholly without merit. Poets and preachers alike exhorted people to consider the passing of one year to another as a kind of death. Consider Alfred Tennyson’s “The Death of the Old Year” (“Close up his eyes: tie up his chin: / Step from the corpse”) or Alexander Balloch Grosart’s “New Year’s Eve” (“The darkness of this year’s death, / Will it enshroud us still?”). Cheery stuff! “It is wholesome that the mournful reflections which the period suggests should be indulged,” recommended Thomas Kibble Hervey, “but not to the neglect of its more cheerful influences.”

11. Send a strange New Year’s card.

Children are perhaps glad this Victorian New Year's tradition no longer exists.
Children are perhaps glad this Victorian New Year's tradition no longer exists. / Kinney Brothers Tobacco Company, The Metropolitan Museum of Art // Public Domain

Sending Christmas and New Year’s cards first became a tradition in the Victorian Era. And just like the odd Victorian Christmas iconography of dead birds and gun-toting dogs, New Year’s cards similarly might feature mischievous monkeys, inebriated frogs, and more dead birds. Particularly impish were a series of Kinney Tobacco Company cards that included images of children stamped with the date of the old year being thrown into a cauldron to be made into soup.

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