Party like the Babylonians…

The passage of time from day to day, season to season and year to year is something that has been acknowledged and commemorated by cultures worldwide over many millennia.

In today’s  New Year blog, we take a look at some of the history behind these celebrations, including one tradition that many people still observe, especially in Scotland, is that of the First Footing.

Party like the Babylonians …

Western celebrations owe much to ancient Greek and Roman myths and rituals. However, there are some elements of our modern day traditions are remnants of older, all but forgotten traditions, with their origin in ancient Babylon.

The celebration of the New Year is one of the oldest of all holidays.  It was first observed in ancient Babylon (c. 3500 BC), in a multi-day festival called Akitu (derived from the Sumerian word for barley) to herald the start of the new year and the rebirth of the natural world, and was celebrated each year following the first new moon after the vernal equinox (the beginning of spring).

It was Julius Caesar who established January the first month of the New Year.  It was named after Janus, the Roman god of doors and gates (or entrances and exits), who was often portrayed with 2 heads.  He introduced what has come to be known as the Julian calendar when the months became synchronised with the seasons and the sun. From then the Romans celebrated the new year on January 1st, which they called the Kalends of January or Iani Kalendai and the English word calendar comes from this old Latin term.

As is the way with folklore and tradition, New Year celebrations have become entangled with myth and superstition.

First Footing

This is a tradition still observed by many people, especially in Scotland. The first-foot, or quaaltagh, is the first person to set foot in your house, after the midnight bells chime, who is the bringer of good fortune for the household for the coming year. It is particularly lucky if that visitor happens to be a tall dark-haired man.

worsley-manThe best we could do for a tall dark-haired man – Facial reconstruction of Worsely Man, Ancient Worlds 1, Manchester Museum.

They should come with drinks and food and should be merrily generous.  Traditionally, they are expected to carry at least a Hawf or half bottle of whisky. You may be invited to “have a wee hawf” – to take a glass of whisky with the first footer. In fact, this is expected – and in return, the first footer will drink from your bottle.

First Footers also carry a lump of coal with them and this would be thrown on the fire with the wish that lang may yer lum reek [long may your chimney smoke]! One should also carry something to eat and, traditionally bread or a black bun – a rich cake full of currants and perhaps alcohol – was provided.

Good Spirits & Fellow Feeling are expected. All those who meet after the bells are expected to wish each other a Guid New Year; and to shake hands and kiss if they know each other.

First Footer Rules

  • The first footer brings all the luck, good or bad, for the year ahead.
  • They should be male, tall, dark and handsome.
  • They cannot be doctors, ministers or grave-diggers & cannot have eyebrows that meet in the middle!
  • They should come with drinks and food and should be merrily generous.
  • Such a first footer can claim a kiss from every woman. Woe betide the house that does not have such a First Footer – because they are heading for an unlucky year.

It is thought that many of the traditions associated with Hogmanay celebrations were brought to Scotland by the invading Vikings in the early 8th and 9th centuries; for these Norsemen, considerable importance was placed on the passing of the Winter Solstice. And for the Scots in the absence of Christmas celebrations for a good 400 years after the Protestant Reformation, until the 1950s many Scots would have their family celebrations and exchange gifts at New Year.

If you’re thinking of bringing in the New Year in this traditional Scots fashion, although the items brought in vary between families and regions, here is a quick guide;

  • Money – traditionally a silver coin – for financial prosperity
  • A lump of coal – for warmth
  • Bread – in Scotland, this is usually shortbread and a black bun – for food
  • Salt – for flavour
  • A drink – usually whisky – for good cheer

And in the spirit of New Year, we thought it might be fun to have a look around the museum for some items for the first-footer to bring over the threshold on the chime of midnight this New Year’s Eve;

A silver coin

Silver cob 8 reales of Charles II (1665-1700). Money Gallery, Manchester Museum

A lump of coal

Fern frond from the Upper Carboniferous coalfields of Burnley, Lancashire, from the Fossils Gallery, and coal on display in the Living Worlds Gallery, Manchester Museum.


bakeryA model bakery, complete with servant figures, to bake bread for the Egyptian deceased for eternity. Ancient Worlds 2, Manchester Museum.


imageRock salt from Northwich, on display on Nature’s Library, Manchester Museum.

A drink

16Not whiskey, but a drop of champagne! Living Worlds Gallery, Manchester Museum.

So whether your celebrations are ancient or modern, traditional or somewhat different, all that remains is for us to wish all our readers, staff and visitors – HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Judith and Michelle


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