New Year Superstitions, Customs and Folktales from Victorian Derbyshire

Introduction

Following on from the post on Christmas Folklore, Superstitions, Carols and Customs from Victorian Derbyshire recorded by Sidney Oldall Addy within his late 19th century Household Tales and Traditional Remains, this post brings together extracts from this book relating superstitions, rituals and folktales for the New Year.[i]

In this book, Addy speculates as to the origin of some superstitions and folktales, suggesting in some cases (with little valid supporting evidence) continuity from the pre-Christian era – as was typical within many Victorian, and some early 20th century, works. Detailed philological, sociological, archaeological and historical, anthropological and ethnographic studies carried out during and after the late 20th century tend to indicate, in the absence of written records, the relatively short duration of social memories, limiting the length of time over which superstitions, traditions, and folktales continue unchanged.[ii] Many seemingly ‘ancient’ ritual practices, supernatural beliefs, and seasonal customs have a much later origin that might be supposed, mostly deriving from the post-medieval period, sometimes to quite recent years. The reader should therefore proceed with caution (and seek corroboration within more up to date research) before accepting claims made within early works of continuity from ‘pagan times’. Nonetheless, Household Tales provides and interesting account of superstitions remembered in the late 19th century, if not necessarily still practised at that time.

Although many of the traditions are from North Derbyshire (presented below in the Derbyshire New Year Superstitions, Traditions and Folktales section), Addy does not always record the provenance of customs; though perhaps it is safe to presume from the full title of the book that the information contained within is from either Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, or Yorkshire.[iii] These extracts appear below in the ‘Unprovenanced New Year superstitions and rituals’ section (though extrapolating from previous paragraphs in the book, some or all possibly derive from East Riding).

Household Tales relates fewer regional New Year traditions than those associated with Christmas, or with other times of the year. Some belong to both Christmas and New Year, such as the “wasselling” carol recorded in the preceding post: a regional version of ‘I Saw Three Ships”, about which Addy speculates that “The idea seems to have been that the New Year, like a child, came over the sea in a ship”.

There is some continuity of traditions into the present, with perhaps the most well known New Year custom of ‘first footing’. However, for North Derbyshire, this recorded as a Christmas practice, rather than a ritual carried out at the turn of the year (as also seen from the preceding post).

In general, New Year traditions in Britain consist of both ‘spells’ for girls and women wishing to prophesise their future husband (as is common with seasonal customs), as well as rituals intended to ensure good fortune for the year to come. New Year customs recorded in Household Tales as known at the end of the 19th century in Derbyshire include some divination ‘spells’, though most appear to be aimed at procuring ‘good luck’ in the New Year.

(Extracts are quoted verbatim, without using speech marks to denote Addy’s narration, and square brackets used for insertions by the author of this post.)

Derbyshire New Year Superstitions, Customs and Folktales

Customs

…a Derbyshire man puts a coin into the spout on New Year’s Eve and brings it into the house the minute after the clock has struck twelve at midnight…to make the coming year prosperous.

The Derbyshire man brings a [xxvi] coin into the house to make the new year prosperous. It may be that when he does this he is quite unconscious of what the ceremony means, and that he is merely repeating a formality whose meaning has long been forgotten. Still there once was a time when his ancestors practised the ceremony with a real and earnest purpose…

[The] bringing of a coin into the house at the dawn of the New Year was believed to be a means of ensuring the possession of money during that year…

…important as it was that the household should be possessed of money, it was more important that it should have enough of food and fire. It was therefore desirable that as the year came in some means [xxvii] should be devised whereby the possession of these good things would be secured.

…A similar rude process of reasoning goes on, or at least once went on, when a piece of money is put into the pocket of a new coat “for luck,” the idea being that the coin will have a magical influence over the coat, and that the prosperity thus begun will be continued.

One of the most interesting relics of paganism which I have had the good luck to discover is that which relates to the three Fates or Norns. In the section entitled “Two Pagan Hymns” [see following extract] mention will be found of three maids known as “the threble Timbers,” two of whom are “lily white,” and the third is dressed in green. These maids are described as living for evermore, and they are plainly the three Fates. The girls who set the table on New Year’s Eve with knives, forks, plates, and chairs for three guests, whom they expect to appear at the hour of midnight, are, without knowing it, spreading the table for the three Fates, though in the charm which they practise they expect their future husbands to appear. In the collection of superstitions condemned by Burchard, Bishop of Worms, who died in 1024, we are told that the German women of his time had the custom, at certain times of the year, of spreading tables in their houses with meat and drink, and laying three knives, that if the three sisters should come (whom Burchard interprets as being equivalent to the Roman Parcae) they might partake of their hospitality.[iv] Thus, in a Derbyshire village, at the end of the nineteenth century, we find this old superstition in full vigour, the only difference being that the future husbands of the women, instead of the Fates, are expected to appear.[v]

[“Two Pagan Hymns”:] On New Year’s Eve three unmarried girls may adopt the following plan in order to see the spirits of their future husbands. Let them go into a room which has two doors, and set the table with knives, forks, and plates for three guests, and let them wait in the room till twelve o’clock at midnight, at which hour exactly the spirits of their future husbands will come in at one door and go out at the other.[vi]

Let a girl take the stone out of a plum, throw the stone in the fire, and say these lines :

If he loves me crack and fly,

If he hates me burn and die.

Then let her mention the name of her sweetheart. If he loves her the stone will crack and fly out of the fire. If he does not love her it will quietly burn to ashes.

In Derbyshire “wassil” cakes are made on New Year’s Day. They are composed of flour, milk, and the first egg which a goose has laid. The cake is the same as that which is known as “speechless cake.”

…partaking of a mixed dish or cake as the new year comes in was believed to induce a sufficiency of food.

…in Derbyshire a species cake called “wassil cake,” [is] compounded in the same way as another cake well known in magic as “the speechless cake,” is made on New Year’s Day.

Folktales

About midnight on New Year’s Eve a man at Eckington, in Derbyshire, said that he saw a spectre in the shape of a wild white horse. The colliers in this neighbourhood say that they often see this white horse.

Unprovenanced New Year superstitions and rituals

On New Year’s Eve one should go out before midnight and bring a piece of coal, a broom, a shovel, or other article into the house. This should be done just as the old year is passing away and the new year coming in. A piece of money should also be put into the spout for luck, and taken into the house just when the new year is coming in.

On New Year’s Day unmarried girls melt lead and pour it into a bucket of water. It then assumes various shapes, such as a hammer, and from this they divine the trades or occupations of their future husbands.

It is unlucky to continue the knitting of a stocking into the new year. The stocking should be finished before the year closes, and the needle taken out. The needle must not be allowed to remain in the stocking until the beginning of the new year.

As the old year is passing away and the new year coming in cattle fall on their knees.

Whatever work you are doing when the new year comes in you will do a great deal of the same work during that year.

It is unlucky to come into your house with empty hands on New Year’s morning.

On New Year’s Day the “lucky bird” came again and received the usual present. Then the boys of the family received presents, and after them the girls.

The first person who comes into a house on New Year’s morning must have black hair. Sometimes boys with dark hair are picked for the purpose of being the first to enter the house on New Year’s morning.

lg-welcome-in-the-new-year

We hope that readers have enjoyed these extracts from Household Tales, and will return in spring 2015 with Victorian folklore and superstitions from Derbyshire associated with topics such as fairies and Morris Dancing!

LIPCAP wishes readers:

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Notes

[i] Household Tales and Traditional Remains. Collected in the Counties of York, Lincoln, Derby, and Nottingham, published 1895.

[ii] For example, a useful and interesting work that considers the transmission and transformation of folktales is James Fentress’ and Chris Wickham’s 1992 Social Memory. See also ‘Telling tales? Myth, memory, and Crickley Hill’, by the author of this post, in Memory, Myth and Long-Term Landscape Inhabitation, Adrian M. Chadwick and Catriona D. Gibson (eds.), 2013, for a recent discussion of long-term cultural memory.

[iii] See endnote i.

[iv] The footnote of the text records “ “Wright’s Celt, Roman, and Saxon, 4th ed., p. 340. Burchard’s words are: ” Fecisti ut quaedam mulieres in quibusdam temporibus anni facere solent, ut in domo sua mensam praeparares et tuos cibos et potum cum tribus cultellis supra mensam poneres, ut si venissent tres illae sorores, quas antiqua posteritas et antiqua stuititia Parcas nominavit, ibi reficerentur.” ”

[v] Abby notes that [xxx] “In the Nornagests Saga we are told that there travelled about in the land völvur, who are called spákonur, who foretold to men their fate. People invited them to their houses and gave [Xxxi] them good cheer and gifts. These beings are identical with the Norns.” The accompanying footnote records the source of this myth as Grimm’s Teutonic Myth, trans. Stallybrass, p. 409.

[vi] Abby notes “The three guests are the three Parcae, or Fates”. For the source, as recorded in the footnote of the text, see Grimm (trans. Stallybrass), op. cit., p. 1746.

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