What is first footing? where the Scottish Hogmanay tradition comes from and common first footing gifts

Scottish traditions have influenced New Year's Eve parties around the world. Picture: Shutterstock
Scottish traditions have influenced New Year's Eve parties around the world. Picture: Shutterstock
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Singing “Auld Lang Syne” and toasting the bells with whisky are two Scottish New Year traditions that have spread across the world

However, some things such as the term “Hogmanay” and the custom of first-footing, have stayed within the country.

Although many people opt for a glass of something fizzy, a dram at the stroke of midnight is a classic way to ring in the year. Picture: Shutterstock

Although many people opt for a glass of something fizzy, a dram at the stroke of midnight is a classic way to ring in the year. Picture: Shutterstock

But what is first footing and do people really still take part in this ancient custom? Here’s everything you need to know.

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What is first footing?

Since ancient times, households across Scotland have welcomed strangers through their doors with the aim of bringing good fortune for the year ahead.

Pyrotechnics have been a part of Hogmanay for a long, long time. Picture: Shutterstock

Pyrotechnics have been a part of Hogmanay for a long, long time. Picture: Shutterstock

First footing, which stems from the Gaelic practice of “qualtagh”, is still practiced today and while some individuals can bring good luck for the upcoming 12 months - others can be seen as a harbinger of ill fate.

Traditionally, the first footer should be someone who was not already in the house when midnight struck – hence the Scottish party tradition of having one guest leave just before the bells so they can knock on the door as the new year begins.

What gifts do first footers bring?

The first footer will usually come bearing gifts.

Traditionally, they would arrive loaded with a coin, bread, salt, a lump of coal, and whisky - gifts representing all the things the new year would hopefully bring, such as prosperity, food, flavour, warmth and good cheer.

Home-owners would put on entertainment for their guests after the first footer arrives, and in some histories of the event, the first footer could claim a kiss from every woman in the house.

Who brings good luck as a first footer?

In Scotland, tradition has it that a dark-haired man brings good luck as a first footer, whereas light haired men, redheads and women are seen as harbingers of ill fate.

Having a doctor or minister appear at the door as a first footer is also bad luck - presumably due to their association with illness and death.

Yorkshire holds to the male side of the tradition but does not stipulate the hair colour for its first footers.

Does first footing happen anywhere else in the world?

While first footing is predominantly a Scottish Hogmanay tradition, it also used to be carried out in the north of England.

A similar tradition also exists in Sweden, where inviting a stranger into your house after midnight is said to bring good luck for the new year.

However, the Swedish ritual observes the opposite follicular prejudice – it is only considered lucky to invite in a light-haired visitor as your first footer.

Greece has a tradition called “pothariko” which carries a similar theory that the first person to cross the threshold in the new year can bring either good or bad luck with them.

As a result, many Greek homes are highly selective about who is allowed to walk through their doors first.

In the Greek tradition, first footing is followed by the lady of the house serving festive treats to further ensure good luck in the year to come.

Georgia has a similar tradition called “Mekvle”, from the word for footprint (“kvali”) while the Serbian Polaznik includes the same practice but on Christmas Day rather than at the turn of the year.