Southern Illinois History Page

New Year's in Old Southern Illinois


The holiday season in Old Egypt was a time rich in tales, traditions, and folk beliefs. Many Springhouse readers will surely recall stories of farm animals said to drop to their knees at midnight on Christmas Eve and miraculously speak with human voices while bees supposedly hummed the One Hundredth Psalm in honor of the Savior's birth. Our region's wonderful heritage of Christmas folklore was explored in my article "A Pioneer Christmas in Southern Illinois" which appeared in the Volume I, Number 7 issue of Springhouse.

As fascinating as this topic may be, however, it should not overshadow the fact that a significant amount of folklore is also centered around New Year's Day in Egypt. The first day of the new year - and the night which preceded it - held no small importance for old-time southern Illinoisans, a belief underscored by the colorful customs and notions to which our forebears devoutly adhered.

Readers of my earlier article will remember the tradition that the twelve days following either "New Christmas" (December 25) or "Old Christmas" (January 6) should give one some idea of the weather for each of the twelve months of the new year. But for one who didn't care for that particular method of weather prognostication there was an even more uncanny means to determine what Mother Nature had in store!

All one need do, it was said, was select twelve large onions, cut away their tops, and then hollow them out. Before retiring on New Year's Eve, the onions were placed in a row and each cavity filled with salt. Old-timers believed that the amount of "water" found in the hollowed-out onions the next morning was indicative of the amount of rainfall one could expect during each month of the new year. Try it, readers, and let us know if it works!

Several New Year beliefs were specifically associated with midnight, the time-honored "witching hour" in every folk tale from antiquity to the present. Vance Randolph wrote of Ozark families who always opened their windows at midnight for a few minutes "no matter what the temperature or weather conditions." This was thought to release the accumulated bad luck of the old year while inviting in the good luck of the new.

Randolph also mentioned the prevalent notion that a person''s behavior on January 1 was indicative of his behavior for the entire year. Consequently, he continued, "drunkards often make a superhuman effort to keep sober. In Pineville, Missouri, I have seen men sit with watches in their hands and whiskey jugs before them, waiting until midnight before taking a drink. " One can only surmise that the sale of liquor in Pineville must have skyrocketed on January 2.

We have seen that many old-timers believed well and stream water turned to wine at midnight on Old Christmas Eve, similarly, it was thought that water acquired magical qualities at midnight on New Year's Eve. Often, a family member would carry a pitcher of water taken from a nearby stream back to the house where the enchanted elixir would be solemnly consumed by everyone from octogenarians to toddlers.

A number of traditions involved the eating of certain foods at midnight on New Year's Eve, although the specific food thought to assure good luck through the year varied somewhat according to custom and the family's ethnic background. My research indicates that black-eyed peas and beans were the two most popular dishes among the old-time southern Illinoisans but I remember a German family which, at the stroke of midnight, began chowing down on - of all things - pickled herring!

An interesting New Year's Day superstition widely held throughout southern Illinois and the Ozark country of Missouri and Arkansas stoutly maintained that nothing must be carried out of the house on January 1 or bad luck would befall the family until the next New Year's Day.

From a folklorist's viewpoint, though, the most intriguing aspect of a New Year's in old southern Illinois was its "first-footing" observance. Known in varying forms from China to Ireland, first-footing refers to the belief that the first person to enter a dwelling on the first day of the new year is capable of bestowing an abundance of either good or bad luck on that family for the entire year. Whether the fortune is beneficial or malignant depends upon making certain that the "first-footer" is the right sort of person as defined by that particular culture.

The first-footer of choice in southern Illinois was traditionally a man. While the old-timers were not in unanimous agreement that a woman being the first person to enter a house on New Year's Day necessarily brought bad luck, it was generally thought that a male first-footer was a much safer bet. Since a first-footer could not be someone who actually lived in the house (no, a family member couldn't just step outside and then walk back in) many families had long-standing arrangements with their neighbors to have a male "call on them" the first thing New Year's Day.

A first-footer in old southern Illinois sometimes brought a small gift when he entered a home, usually food, although a family whose religion did not prohibit the imbibing of alcohol would look kindly upon a bit of holiday cheer. In Britain - from which so many Egyptian folkways have come down to us - a first-footer was required to be a dark-haired man but my research indicates that this stipulation was not rigorously adhered to in southern Illinois.

Amusingly enough, however, there is evidence that first-footing in our region was by no means limited to human habitations. The late John Allen, dean of southern Illinois folklorists, observed that old-timers believed if a man was the first person to enter a henhouse on New Year's Day most of the hatching chicks that year would be cockerels, but if the first-footer was a woman then pullets would predominate! I have not been able to learn if this corollary to first-footing also extended to the first person to set foot in the barn or hop over the fence into the pig sty.

Allen wrote that some southern Illinoisans slept with a horse shoe under their pillows on December 31 to assure good luck through the coming year. I recall an Egyptian expatriate telling me that her family always burned a sassafras log in the fireplace just before retiring on New Year's Eve. An acquaintance informed me that he had known a family in Randolph county which traditionally exchanged presents on New Year's Day, a custom perhaps derived from French influence.

There are undoubtedly many other traditions and beliefs associated with either New Year's Eve or Day in southern Illinois. Why not write to Springhouse and share your memories with us? How did your family welcome in the new year? Drop us a line - we always enjoy hearing from you!

Oh, by the way - a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you, Readers!

[Source: John J. Dunphy. December 1988. "New Year's in Old Southern Illinois." Springhouse. 5:6. 16-17.]

Contact Dunphy by e-mail or visit the Second Reading Bookshop on the web.

Created October 9, 2003 by Jon Musgrave © 2003