Category Archives: Oral History

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:

1293933880392931 nyr 6

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.

At Home in WWI Exhibition: Exploring Life on the Home Front through Houshold Objects

A webpage ‘At Home in WWI Exhibition: Exploring Life on the Home Front through household Objects‘ outlining the content of LICAP’s recent First World War centenary exhibition ‘At Home in WWI‘ describes and illustrates the displays on show, and is available by following this link.

Countdown to At Home in WWI Exhibition: 7 days to go!

Less than a week to go now until the exhibition! Still lots to do, but we have more to show now after the preparations began in March.

We hope to include information on Mr Grundy – after whom the pub ‘next door’ to our exhibition venue is named, where this WW1 soldier lived after the war. One of our volunteers is working on a display that brings together the information already gathered by staff on Mr Grundy – to whom we’re very grateful for his kindness in not only sharing this information with us, but also for going to the trouble of getting copies ready for us.

We also hope to provide displays on a few local people – some ancestors of those involved with the exhibition – who served in the Great war; we are fortunate in being permitted to display some *fantastic* photos from the period, which I really look forward to seeing printed out, as well as other mementos and keepsakes.

Countdown to At Home in WWI Exhibition: 8 days to go!

Our exhibition is a week tomorrow, so we’re starting to pull things together – although work continues on some of the displays.

Today the study area and historic maps have been printed out, to go with information on the project – what we’re doing, and how we do it! – and on how members of the public can take part.

We’ll also be displaying historic photos – thanks to Derek Palmer – and oral history, to other perspectives on life in the western suburbs of Derby in the early 20th century. So far, this has focused on housing, and sanitation – not a savoury topic, but an important source of archaeological finds!

Our sanitation artefact display will include objects that will be familiar to anyone who – like our project director – has lived in a house without an indoor toilet!

Back tomorrow with another round-up of preparations for our forthcoming exhibition.

Countdown to At Home in WWI Exhibition: 9 days to go!

With 9 days to go until our WWI centenary event, exhibits that we’re currently working on include clothing and dress accessories at the outbreak of the war. We will have have a beautiful 1910s dress bodice on display, and will be exhibiting a number of ‘small finds’ of the era (including a sweet little boot-button-cum-teddy-bear-eye!) that commonly turn up in excavations, and as surface finds – with info on ‘what you might find in the garden’. And we have information on corsets in wartime!

For more on the exhibition, follow this link

Countdown to At Home in WWI Exhibition: 10 days to go!

In 10 days (19 July) LIPCAP will be holding an exhibition – ‘At Home in WWI‘ – as part of the annual CBA Festival of Archaeology. We’re using domestic material culture (household objects and housing), alongside photos, maps, oral history, and written sources (such as newspapers and trade directories) to look at home life in Derby at the outbreak of war. We’ll use the run-up to the exhibition to introduce some of the objects and topics we’ll have on display.

One theme of the exhibition is the ‘Material World at War’. The section displays different materials used in the home during the WWI era, touching upon some of the technological developments, and cultural changes at this time, and the impact of innovations on the material environment of the home. This has involved looking at the some of the natural materials (such as bone, horn and ivory) that had long been used for household objects, and the replacement of these organic materials with the introduction of early plastics into the home. 

So why not come along to the exhibition and see if you can tell early plastics from the ‘genuine article’ – can YOU spot a early fake?!  

More tomorrow on what we have done for At Home in WWI!

Countdown to LIPCAP’s At Home in WWI

Starting tomorrow, we’ll begin the countdown to our upcoming exhibition – At Home in WWI (Sat. 19 July, 1-4pm, Georgian House Hotel, Ashbourne Rd., Derby), providing a taster of what will feature in the displays.

We’ll arrange the exhibits around several themes, through which we’ll explore experiences and conditions in Derby at the outbreak of the ‘Great War’, with a particular emphasis on the home.

Material culture – including local archaeological ‘finds’ – will be used to illustrate the domestic environment of industrial workers at this time, and to consider effects of social and cultural change, and of technological and economical developments leading up to and at the start of war upon housing and household ‘things’, integrating information on local involvement in the war,

We hope that you will be able to join us at the exhibition (which has free entry, and family activities): it’s a lovely venue (and we thank the hotel for graciously and very kindly allowing us use of their function room), with a smashing beer garden, car parking, and tasty ales from Mr Grundy’s Tavern next door.

But if distance or commitments etc. prevent dropping in, we intend to put some of the exhibits online after the event, so please check back at the end of the month – beginning of August, to see what we’ve been up to.