Tag Archives: Traditions

New Year Superstitions, Customs and Folktales from Victorian Derbyshire


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


…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.


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.


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


[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.

Victorian Derbyshire Christmas Folklore, Superstitions, Customs and Carols

For Christmas, I’ve brought together Christmas folk tales, superstitions rituals and carols, from Derbyshire, and some recorded by Addy that were known in, and may in some cases derive from, North Derbyshire.

The following are from a late 19th century collection by Sidney Oldall Addy: Household Tales and Traditional Remains.[i] The extracts are presented below as emphasised text, to differentiate from background information. With the exception of a few short comments I make (which are italicised, and within the endnotes), the text is quoted verbatim, with speech marks only used where Addy cites informants and other works.


Non-localised Christmas superstitions and rituals

Addy records a number of superstitions and customs (some of which have survived into this 20th century), and ritual practices (sometimes referred to as ‘spells’) without attributing the locality of derivation, suggesting that they belong to a more widespread canon of belief – and perhaps indicating transmission (and fossilisation) through literacy.[ii] Some may relate to the localities mentioned by Addy in preceding paragraphs, although this is unclear (the possible derivations are recorded here in endnotes). As is typical for other seasons (see the previous post on Derbyshire Halloween traditions and folklore on a sister website, Underworld Archaeology), the ‘spells’ are predominantly aimed at girls and women wishing to prophesize their future husband.

Christmas ritual practices

On Christmas Eve unmarried girls lay a white sheet over a chair before the fire, and leave it there all night. In the morning if a spear is found reared against it the girl’s husband will be a soldier ; if a sickle, he will be a farmer, and so on.

If a girl walks backwards to a pear tree on Christmas Eve, and walk round it three times, she will see the spirit or image of the man who is to be her husband.

Christmas superstitions and customs

If you meet with a good log of wood you should preserve it for the Christmas fire.[iii]

If a dog howls on Christmas Eve he will go mad in the following year.[iv]

If a woman goes out of the house on Christmas Eve she must return before midnight.[v]

It is unlucky for a light haired or a red-haired man to “let in” Christmas.[vi]

A candle or lamp should be left burning all night on Christmas Eve. Unless this is done there will be a death in the house.

Ale posset must be the last thing that you drink on Christmas Eve, and frummity the first thing that you eat on Christmas morning.[vii]

On Christmas Eve, or the morning of Christmas Day, you should give a sheaf of oats to every horse, cow, or other beast about your farmhouse.[viii]

If the sun shines brightly on your apple trees on the morning of Christmas Day you will have a good crop of apples next year.[ix]

If you refuse a mince-pie at Christmas you will be unlucky during the following year. As many mince-pies as you eat between Christmas Day and the new year so many happy months will you have.

Evergreens brought into the house before Christmas should not be taken out of the house until Christmas is over, or until Twelfth Day.[x]

If you hang clothes out to dry on Old Christmas Day (January 12) you will be laid in your grave in some of those clothes before the year is out.[xi]

On Candlemas Day Christmas decorations should be burnt.[xii]

Christmas Superstitions in Derbyshire

In Derbyshire it is said that if the yule log is not burnt away on Christmas Eve the ashes or embers must on no account be taken out of the house.

No fire must on any account be taken out of the house between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.

In the north of Derbyshire, and also in Sheffield, it is a very common practice to ask some dark-haired man to come into the house on the morning of Christmas Day before any other person has entered. The same man will often “let in” Christmas for a number of families, calling at their houses early in the morning. He usually walks in at the front door and goes out at the back door. In many houses the custom is very strictly maintained.

This tradition compares with the custom of ‘first footing’, more commonly associated with New Year.

Derbyshire Folk Tales

The Man That Stole the Parson’s Sheep (Calver, in Derbyshire)

There was once a man who used to steal a fat sheep every Christmas. One Christmas he stole the parson’s sheep, and his son, a lad about twelve years old, went about the village singing

My father’s stolen the parson’s sheep,

And a merry Christmas we shall keep,

We shall have both pudding and meat,

But you meant say nought about it.

Now it happened one day that the parson himself heard the boy singing these words, so he said, ” My lad, you sing very well ; will you come to church next Sunday evening and sing it there ? “

” I’ve no clothes to go in/’ said the boy. But the parson said, ” If you will come to church as I ask you, I will buy you clothes to go in.” So the boy went to church the next Sunday evening, dressed in the new clothes that the parson had given him.

When the service was over the parson said to the people, ” Stay, my brethren, I want you to hear what this boy has to sing, it’s gospel truth that he’ll tell you,” for he was hoping that the boy would confess before all the people that his father had stolen the sheep. But the boy got up and sang

As I was in the field one day

I saw the parson kiss a may ;[xiii]

He gave me a shilling not to tell,

And these new clothes do fit me well.

At Bradwell, in the Peak of Derbyshire, once lived a man known as Master John, who was reported to be a wise man, and whose advice was sought by all the people in the village.

It is said that the ghost of a child who had been murdered in the village could not be appeased, and so the aid of Master John was invoked. Master John pronounced the words:

“In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, why troublest thou me” and turned the ghost of the child into a large fish.

This fish used to appear, it is said, at a place called the Lum [61] Mouth, and also at Lumley Pool, in Bradwell, on Christmas Day to people who fetched water from the wells there.

When anybody saw the ghost in the form of a fish he would run away, screaming cc the fish, the fish.”[xiv]

 Derbyshire Carols

The following carol is sung on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day in the neighbourhood of Sheffield. It is called:


Girls. Our jolly wessel,

Love and joy come to you,

And to our wessel bough (boo) ;

Pray God send you

A happy new year,

A new year, a new year.

We’ve been a while a-wandering

Amongst the leaves and greaves,[xv]

And now we come a- wesseling,

So plainly to be seen.

Boys. God bless the master of this house,

And the mistress also,

Likewise the little children

That round the table go.

I wish you a merry Christmas

And a happy new year,

A pocket full of money,

And a cellar full of beer,

At Eckington, in Derbyshire, a village about eight miles from Sheffield, the children carry a doll in a box when they go round singing this carol.

In Eckington another hymn or carol[xvi] is sung by children on Christmas Eve, the words and tune being as follows :

3 ships

This carol is of course familiar to many today, although the melody and lyrics differ to those of the ‘traditional’ version most commonly sung in the 20th and 21st centuries. The 1929 ed. of The Oxford Book of Carols (ed. Percy Dearmer, R. Vaughn Williams and Martin Shaw) records that the ‘traditional’ version recorded in that edition “(in Sandys, 1833 ) differs only in v. 3 from the Derbyshire version with our first tune in Bramley & Stainer, Christmas Carols New and Old , 1871” 

About Dronfield, in Derbyshire, they sing at Christmas the carol beginning :

The first good joy that Mary had it was the joy of one

To see her own son Jesus suck at her breast-bone ;

It brings tidings of comfort and joy.[xvii]

holly bunch

The tradition of regional carols continues in the pubs of North Derbyshire today; several recordings can be seen on Youtube, which last year I collated as a playlist, available here.

I hope to return to Derbyshire customs recorded by Addy for the New Year

ivy R


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

[ii] Discussion of the origins of Christmas traditions and customs celebrated and practiced at the national and international scale will be left to the numerous texts on this topic.

[iii] Possibly Nottinghamshire

[iv] Possibly from East Riding

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Possibly from South Yorkshire

[viii] Possibly from East Riding

[ix] Possibly from Derbyshire

[x] Possibly from East Riding

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Possibly from Sheffield

[xiii] Addy states “Maid. O. N. mar, ace. mcy.”

[xiv] Addy suggests “Compare Wood’s Tales and Traditions of the High Peak, 1862, p. 183.”

[xv] Addy notes “Old English graft’, a greave, or grove. The version here printed was written down by me on Christmas Day, 1890.”

[xvi] Addy comments: “It seems probable that the singer of this carol formerly carried a box containing the figure of a child. This is called the “bessel cup” “.

[xvii] According to Addy “The words of the carol are the same as those given in Brand’s Popular Antiquities, ed. 1849, i. 454. In singing the carol the last line of each stanza is repeated several times. The “vessel cup,” is not carried about in Dronfield, but it is carried about in the village of Handsworth, near Sheffield. Taking the whole evidence together, it seems to me that the “box,” “milly box,” “bessel cup,” or ” vessel cup,” represents the image of a vessel or ship in which an effigy of the boy Sceaf (afterwards changed to Jesus) was carried about as a representation of the birth of the year. Vessel, or vessel, in the sense of ship, is at least as old as Chaucer’s time. The idea seems to have been that the New Year, like a child, came over the sea in a ship.”