December 31st or January 1st were not traditional Festive days in Ireland. This is because until the British Parliament adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752 New Years Day in Ireland occurred on March 25th. The passing of the Act resulted in the loss of eleven days, the Parliament decreeing that September 2nd was to be followed by September 14th. The change caused consternation more in anticipation than in reality; similar to that experienced in Ireland when we changed the decimal currency in the 1970's. The reaction of some communities caused riots in the streets with the demand for the return of the eleven days.
The original New Years Day of March 25th was formerly the occasion when people gave each other presents. The custom was changed to Christmas Day in the last century. For country people the calender change did not affect their way of reckoning the start of the working year. For them February 1st , the first day of Spring, was the commencement day of the farmers New Year.
One New Years custom first associated with the Methodist community was the holding of Watch Night Service in the local Chapel. The congregation gathered to see out the old year and to welcome in the New Year. First introduced in the 18th century the Watch Night Service saw the congregation in prayer until about five minutes to 12.00 and then in silence until midnight struck when the hour was greeted with hymns of praise. It was also generally but not always followed by the ringing of the Church bells. The custom later spread to the Anglican Churches and the Presbyterian Churches where in Scotland the New Year celebrations are far more important than those of Christmas Day.
In Ireland, as elsewhere, superstition and tradition plays an important part in the events of New Years Day. In folk tradition New Years Day was a very important indication of what the following twelve months would hold. The weather conditions on that winter's day were interpreted as a sign of the weather throughout the following year. Even the wind direction was seen by some as an important if strange indication of political developments in the year just commencing. A westerly wind gave a welcome boost to the cause of the Irish while an easterly wind favoured the English cause. One wonders why in a country with such a prevalence of westerly winds the Irish problem took so long to resolve, even if only partially.
A popular belief was that the first person to cross your threshold after midnight on New Years Day determined the extent of your luck or bad fortune in the ensuing year. A black haired man was the most welcome visitor to any house bringing as he did enormous luck to the household. Red haired women were not encouraged to be out and about on New Years Eve night for fear that they might upset their more superstitious neighbours.
The first entry to the house, or the "first footing" as it was traditionally called, inevitably gave rise to another example of Irish enterprise with the practice of rewarding dark haired men or boys who were the first to pass the threshold after midnight. Visits were frequently made in the neighbourhood by anyone fortunate enough to have the required physical attributes guaranteed to bring luck to each household. The reward, liquid for the men and coin for the young boys, profited all who participated.
Another custom peculiarly Irish and rooted in the fear of famine and hunger was once enacted throughout the country on New Years Eve. The woman of the house baked a large loaf or barnbrack which the man of the house threw against the door of the house while calling on the Lord to banish famine from Ireland for the next twelve months. The efficacy of these ancient and time honoured customs were never doubted by the people who practised them and who are we to doubt their usefulness at a time when to live in hope rather than in fear was the height of one's expectations.
Happy New Year!