New Year’s Eve is a huge event in Ireland, as of course it is all over the world. Nowadays people celebrate the occasion in several ways.
Many invite family and friends round to their homes to welcome the New Year in together while enjoying a few drinks and nibbles, others do much the same thing except they go to the local pub instead. Some enjoy special entertainment events at local hotels, while many more go to the opposite extreme and stay at home, watching New Year’s Eve television with close family members. Wherever people are, the climax of the evening is usually a communal countdown to midnight to welcome in the New Year.
It wasn’t always like this of course. Over the centuries, Ireland developed several New Year’s Eve traditions designed to bring good luck and banish misfortune over the 12 months ahead. These are the main traditions, some of which are still followed as a way of marking our heritage and keeping traditions alive.
In most parts of Ireland it was considered essential to begin the New Year as you meant to go on. That meant following the old adage that cleanliness is next to Godliness. With this in mind, families would set about cleaning the house from top to bottom.
The burden of cleaning fell mainly on mothers, with help from the children. Fathers would be unlikely to get involved, although they would be called upon to make any necessary repairs around the house.
The idea was to enable the family to make a fresh start, symbolising fresh hope that the New Year would be a good one.
One of the more moving traditions involved remembering family members who had passed away by setting a place for them at the dinner table and leaving it empty. Sometimes the front door would be left unlatched to symbolise that the family wanted to make it as easy as possible for the spirit of their loved one to return to the family home. In some homes, a place would only be set for family members who had died that year; others might set a place for relatives who died several years earlier.
One of the more unusual traditions involved banging the walls of the house with bread as a way of chasing away bad luck and evil spirits. Some traditions also saw it as a way of encouraging good luck and ensuring there would be plenty of bread available over the coming year. In those poverty stricken times, however, you can be sure that the bread was never banged so hard against the wall that it was unfit to eat afterwards.
Great importance was placed on who was first through the door at the start of the New Year. The details varied from region to region, and even within regions at different times. For example, in some traditions, if a dark, handsome man was first through the door it would signify good luck for the New Year. However, a woman would mean bad luck, even more so if it was a young, red haired woman.
Of course, with such traditions, you can be sure there would be some stage management taking place. Families would be sure to have a dark handsome man standing by to be first through the door, with the woman, red-haired or not, having to take second place.
The home was at the centre on another tradition which saw New Year guests being asked to enter the house through the front door at midnight and leave through the back door, assuming, of course that there was a back door. It’s unclear why but this orderly approach was thought to bring the family good luck.
Many singletons would no doubt hope that the New Year would at last be the one when they would find that elusive love of their life. To speed the process on a bit they might place mistletoe, or in some traditions, holly and ivy, under their pillows. This would enable them to see their future partner in their dreams – although how they were supposed to fall asleep with holly leaves prickling into them is another matter.
Other versions of the tradition suggested that placing mistletoe outside the front door would actually bring them luck in finding the right partner within the next 12 months.
In some areas, people would take note of the wind direction as the New Year began. If it came from the west, then Ireland could look forward to a good year, but if it came from the east then things would be bad, and all the good luck would go to Britain instead.
Most of these traditions have now faded of course, but they are a reminded of simpler times when people needed all the good luck they could get just to survive. Some, however, may still be observed occasionally, if only as a way of celebrating the country’s rural past.
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