The First Person You See in the New Year

Who will be the first person you encounter on New Year’s Day? There is a kind of tradition in taking careful note of who that person turns out to be.

There are even several words for the first person to walk through your door on New Year’s Day. One word for this person is quaaltagh. That particular word is used on the Isle of Man – a tiny island halfway between Britain and Ireland in the Irish Sea. It was borrowed into English in the 1800s from Manx, the Celtic-origin language spoken on the Isle of Man. The belief is that the first person you see (I suspect if that is one of your housemates that might not count since it is so likely) will have some bearing on the events of the year to come. In doing a bit of research, I found that some people seem to feel that it might be the first person to enter your house on Christmas. No one entered my house on Christmas Day because my wife and I went out for the day, so I will have to pay attention on January 1.

A variation on this is the custom of going in a group from door-to-door at Christmas or on New Year’s Day and making a request for food or some gifts in return for a song. Sort of a trick-or-treat Halloween combined with caroling or wassailing.

I also read that the person can be the first one you meet after leaving home.

The etymology comes from quaail (meeting) plus -agh, a suffix forming adjectives and the insertion of -t to form a noun.

A more modern term for this person is a “first-footer” as in the first to step foot into your home.

But there is a third way to label this visitor that comes from an old Yorkshire folklore which calls this person a “lucky-bird.”

I found an assortment of preferences for whom this person should be no matter what label you use if you want their appearance to lead to some success in the new year. This very old tradition favors men as being most fortuitous. In most places, a dark-haired man is favored. Some regions believe you should want him to be a bachelor. Then again, one article I read said that he should bring a gift of coal, but that is a really out-of-favor gift these days. By the late 1800s, whiskey became the preferred gift.

I don’t know anyone who follows this tradition. It’s completely new to me. I suspect that if I had lived more than 200 years ago in the UK some place where this tradition was honored, I might have used it to my advantage. I imagine that a bachelor who was interested in a young lady might have showed up early on New Year’s Day at her front door bearing gifts of coal and whiskey. Those gifts might have had more effect on her father (an important person to win over when you are courting), but then again we could crank up the coal fire and pour a few drinks and who knows what might happen.

Leave a comment if you try out this old tradition this New Year and if the quaaltagh/first-footer/lucky-bird does turn out to be significant in your life.

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Ken Ronkowitz

Random by design. Predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente. A lifelong educator.

One thought on “The First Person You See in the New Year”

  1. I didn’t leave the house at all New Year’s Day and no one came to my house. People who live with you aren’t supposed to count in this tradition – but the only person I saw all day was my wife. I think she will be, as she has been, the most significant person in my life for 2019.

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