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Customs and Traditions of January by Sue Perryman

Many countries have different customs and traditions held in January to welcome and bring in good luck for the New Year. I'm going to look at a few of them that are traditionally from the UK, although some of them are mostly forgotten today. In Scotland it was an old custom to bring in the first bucket of water from the well on New Year’s Day. This was called the 'flower' or 'Cream' of the well, and it would have been shared by several neighbours who all used the same well. It was sprinkled around the house and sipped by all to ensure good health. Sometimes the water would be taken from a ford between the village and the cemetery, on New Year’s Eve it was seen as the water of the dead, and on New Year’s Day, the water of life.

In some communities the house would be sealed up and aromatic branches like juniper would be burned in the fireplace so the smoke would fumigate and cleanse the house. This is similar to other customs from around the world, where homes are cleansed and blessed with fire and water.

Another ceremony to welcome the New Year is where one door is opened and all the bad luck would be swept away and out of the door, then another door would be opened (assuming you live in a house with a front and back door!) and good luck and blessings would be invited in.

In Scotland and parts of England is the popular tradition of first footing. A handsome dark haired man will appear at the door at midnight on New Year’s Eve, bringing with him a lump of coal, a loaf of bread and a bottle of whisky. He enters in silence then wishes everyone a happy new year.

Mari Lwyd

In Wales, between Yule and the middle of January there is an ancient custom involving 'Mari Lwyd' the White Mare. The skull of a horse is fixed onto a pole which has a white canvas or sheet decorated with bells and ribbons attached to it to hide the man underneath. Accompanied by Punch and Judy, the Sergeant and a musician known as the Merryman, they call on houses asking to be let in to sing their song. A challenge of insults is then exchanged with the occupants until they are invited in. Once inside the Mari Lwyd tries to attack and chase the occupants in a mock battle until they are offered food and drink. Following the feast they sing traditional songs and dance before making their way to another household.

Twelfth night

Not many people celebrate this festival nowadays, although it is traditionally the time that the decorations are taken down, leaving them up after this date brings bad luck. One old custom that was held on Twelfth night eve is the Twelfth night cake. This cake would have a bean and a pea baked into it. The man who received the bean became King for the night and the woman who received the pea would be Queen. In some areas a more topsy-turvy custom was the Lord of Misrule. A man would be chosen from the peasants to rule over the 'Feast of Fools' for the evening with the real Lord having to serve him. While this isn't practised today, echoes of it are seen in our modern day pantomimes where a woman plays the part of the male lead and a man plays the Dame.

Plough Monday

The first Monday after Twelfth night meant back to work for the agricultural workers. The old fashioned horse plough would be decorated with ribbons and artificial flowers, and then dragged through the streets by the plough boys who were accompanied by Morris men and sword dancers. In East Anglia a straw bear was also led through the streets too. The plough would be taken to the local church where the priest would bless it with holy water and incense.


On or around the 17th January (the old twelfth night before the calendar changed) is the West Country tradition of wassailing the apple trees. The ritual is intended to bless the trees, drive away all harm and make them fruitful in the coming year. After dark a group of men will gather in the orchard with shotguns, slices of toast and jugs of cider. The guns are fired between the branches to drive away any harm, then the slices of toast soaked in cider are placed on the trees and cider is poured into the roots. Toasts to the tree's are called out and wassailing songs are sung.

Burns Night

This is the night that Scotland (and Scottish people the world over) celebrates the life and work of its most famous Poet, Robbie Burns with a special feast called a Burns Supper. It is usually held on or near his birthday, 25th January. The feast typically includes haggis which is generally piped in by bagpipes and toasted with whisky. When the meal reaches the coffee stage patriotic toasts and speeches are made and the meal is usually ended with a rendition of Burn's most well known song 'Auld Lang Syne'.

Sources: A Calendar of Festivals - Marian Green

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