British Popular Customs Present And Past - online book

A calendar of the traditional customs, practices & rituals of the British Isles.

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16                                     NEW YEAR'S DAY.                         [JAN. L
the design of visiting their neighbours, and interchanging with them the same cordial greetings. If they met by the way another party similarly bent whom they knew, they would stop, and give and take sips from their respective kettles. Reaching the friend's house, they would enter with vociferous good wishes, and soon send the kettle circulating. If they were the first to enter the house since twelve o'clock they were deemed as the first-foot ; and as 6uch it was most important for luck to the family in the coming year, that they should make this entry not empty-handed, but with their hands full of cakes, and bread-and-cheese; of which, on the other hand, civility demanded that each individual in the house should partake.
To such an extent did this custom prevail in Edinburgh, in the recollection of persons still living, that according to their account, the principal streets were more thronged between twelve and one in the morning than they usually were at mid-day. Much innocent mirth prevailed, and mutual good feelings were largely promoted. An unlucky circumstance which took place on the 1st January, 1812, proved the means of nearly extinguishing the custom. A small party of reckless boys formed the design of turning the innocent festivities of first-footing to account for purposes of plunder. They kept their counsel well. No sooner had the people come abroad on the principal thoroughfares of the Old Town than these youths sallied out in small bands, and commenced the business which they had under­taken. Their previous agreement was to look out for the white neckcloths, such being the best mark by which they could distinguish in the dark individuals likely to carry any property worthy of being taken. A great number of gentle­men were thus spoiled of their watches and other valuables. The least resistance was resented by the most brutal maltreatment. A policeman and a young man of the rank of a clerk in Leith died of the injuries they had received. An affair so singular, so uncharacteristic of the people among whom it happened, produced a widespread and lasting feeling of surprise. The outrage was expiated by the execution of three of the youthful rioters on the chief scene of their wickedness; but from that time it was observed that
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