Wandering fairies, returning ancestor spirits, and talking animals comprise some of the folklore and old superstitions associated with the new year. Many who read this page know that the new year really begins after Samhain, and, of course, our ancestors did not follow the calendar year as we know it today. That said, the Duchas.ie archives contain lots of Irish folklore and customs relating to the new calendar year as well.
Taken in isolation many of the traditions might seem strange but looking at the much older beliefs connected to spirits, luck, ancestors and the land, we can discover their connections.
For example, in this piece from 1938 we can find evidence of doors being left open to allow the bad luck to leave and the good luck to arrive. We can also see how people felt that the first initial contact of the new year would establish, hopefully, a pattern of fortune and positive energy and influence.
"Doors are thrown open about ten minutes to twelve on New Years Eve to let the old year out and to let the new year in. There is always an anxious time on the morning of New Year's Day lest any ill-disposed person should be the first to enter the house and sometimes doors are kept religiously closed until some person known to be "good natured" first calls and that person gets a very assuring and cordial invitation to "come in."
Attached to this is a variation of the Dumb/Silent Supper which I wrote about over Samhain. The same procedure is followed on New Year's Eve with the front and back door of the household being left unlocked and a place set at the table for the relatives who had died during the previous year.
As an aside, in Chile a popular New Year's Eve custom is for the family to actually spend the night in the cemetery and sleep next to a loved ones grave.
In Iceland, huge bonfires are lit in order to illuminate the way for wandering fairies and elves. We also see variations of this custom in Ireland but it is quite an isolated tradition now.
Banging bread against the household walls, for example, would be an attempt to dispel bad spirits. Perhaps this concept links to the belief behind many Asian stories of shaman attracting helpful household spirits in this vein. This is done by creating an effigy called an ongon. More on this in a future post.
Another lesser known custom throughout Europe is the belief that a person can communicate with animals on this night. I have also seen this tradition applied to Christmas Eve as well so perhaps it was originally a post-Solstice custom?
In some countries, specific animals are more receptive to being spoken to. In Belgium, for example, it is cows one should speak to in order to hear your fortune for the year ahead. (C.) David Halpin.
Image: The Moon’s Daughter by Seb McKinnon