Scotland loves to celebrate Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve), and along with belting out the lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne,” many Scots participate in a tradition called first footing. The first person to cross the threshold of a house on January 1 is called the first footer. If you’re at a New Year’s Eve party in Scotland, don’t be surprised if a guest leaves the house a few minutes before midnight just so that they can re-enter as the first footer after the bells.
It’s customary for first footers to arrive with symbolic gifts for the year ahead. A coin is brought for wealth, and a lump of coal for warmth. Food and drink are often part of the ritual, too. Whisky is the beverage of choice, and a fruit cake wrapped in pastry, known as a black bun or Scotch bun, is the traditional food. Scots author Robert Louis Stevenson described the black bun as “a dense, black substance, inimical to life.” Unsurprisingly, these days many Scots eschew the stodgy cake.
There is also a superstition that a dark-haired first footer will bring good luck; conversely, a fair-haired first footer signifies bad luck. Historians believe this superstition comes from the Viking invasion of Scotland, when fair-haired strangers arriving at the door often meant trouble.
When exactly first footing began is unknown, but it likely developed from the practice of quaaltagh on the Isle of Man, off the west coast of Great Britain. Quaaltagh is a Manx word for the first person to enter a house on New Year’s Day. The custom involves a group going door-to-door and singing a verse that begins “Ollick ghennal erriu, as bleïn feer vie” (“A merry Christmas, and a very good year to you”). A recording of the song can be heard here.
So grab a lump of coal and a bottle of whisky—probably best to ignore the black bun—and head to your neighbor’s house to ring in the New Year in Scottish style.