Lucky birds

red kite

“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.” J.M. Barrie

When I was a girl we often spent New Year’s Eve with my great grandparents. Unless a neighbour could be relied upon to spontaneously perform the service, the tallest, darkest man of the company would be ushered outside via the back door at five to midnight and the door locked behind them… Heaven forefend that a woman should enter first by accident!

Duly armed with a silver sixpence, a piece of coal and a slice of the rich, dark fruit cake to make sure the conditions for first footing were met… that there would always be wealth, food, and warmth in the home throughout the year…. They would be welcomed back in through the front door, not able to speak until the gifts were distributed.  These first footers were called ‘lucky birds’ in my neck of the woods. The symbolic gifts were kept all year in a small box on the big mahogany dresser, while the old year’s cake and coal were given to the fire… and the old sixpence to the youngest.

As a young wife I kept this tradition, not through superstition but because it is a tradition… a bit of sympathetic magic that reaches far into our history and is backed by the centuries of its own evolution as a custom.  I also kept an adopted one, learned from a Glaswegian friend, that as the house be on New Year’s Eve, so will it be all year… which meant a thorough clean, a well-stocked larder and those you love around you.

There is a lot in these old traditions, even on a purely practical level… it was absolutely true, of course, that there was always silver, coal and food in my great-grandparents house all year… even if only in the little inlaid box… and the care with which the household was prepared for the family celebration says a lot about how the family is likely to live for the rest of the year.

Beyond the practical though there is something deeper… an almost instinctive belief. These traditions have a hold on a pretty visceral part of our collective imagination and though we may dismiss them as superstition, especially when we fail to meet the conditions, we feel an unreasonable, almost guilty satisfaction when all is in place. It doesn’t matter if traditions differ region to region… whether the black cat that crosses your path be a harbinger of luck or doom where you were born… the tradition you know at your roots will always linger at the back of your mind.

Of course, none of us really believe in these things these days… do we?

Yet isn’t this precisely what is behind all the self-help and motivational books? Hasn’t the power of positive thinking become a bit of a buzz –word? They have a point though, the power of the imagination, of belief, is not to be underestimated. It changes our world every day.

“What is now proved was once only imagined.” William Blake

Everything we are, everything we achieve in our lives, from the great to the small, depends upon a belief we create within ourselves… a belief in possibility. This is the basis of superstition on the lowest end of the scale, of psychology at a practical level and of the magical, creative, incredible things we are capable of bringing into the world. How others see us reflects only how we have chosen and learned to see ourselves in an endless exchange of projection and reflection.  Imagination is only held captive by belief…  We may accept that if we can truly believe in our dreams we can achieve them… We can work for that promotion, save for that holiday, lose those extra pounds… we do what we really believe we can.

But the same applies at the deepest level of who we are… we are who we believe we are, we alone limit the horizons over which we can fly. When imagination and belief are allowed to play together, anything is possible.

30 thoughts on “Lucky birds

  1. I love these old traditions. In Spain, it is tradition to eat 12 grapes as the year counts down to midnight, one per second, to ensure good luck for the coming year. I´m sure I ate mine last year, so what happened?? No one could have foretold a global pandemic and months of isolation from loved ones. May 2021 be a better year for the world. Anything is possible!!

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  2. We always followed the New Year traditions, exactly the same as you! We’d all be busy helping mum shop and clean New Year’s Eve. Then as I remember it the house was full to bursting all evening. It usually fell to my eldest brother , because he was tall and dark to the first footer… I can imagine all the first footers out making their way from the back garden to the front door.
    Mum believed in so many traditions I think she had one for every occasion bless her. I believe too and always will. 💜

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  3. One quality that I am pleased to see in my son is that he is very much a traditionalist. I know he will carry on many of the family traditions that we have after I’m no longer around. One of the ones that my parents started was to hold a family reunion every three years. I’m the youngest of four boys, and we ended up scattered geographically. Each time one of the brothers organizes this week-long event. (That means your turn comes up every twelve years.) It’s been a cool way to see many different parts of the country.

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  4. Sadly so many old traditions have been lost. At New Year parties, the oldest would be shoved out the back door and the youngest invited through the front with a lump of coal, loaf of bread and a shilling for the host. Happy memories and some not so happy, but at the stroke of midnight, arms were linked, voices were in full chorus, and glasses raised.
    It will probably be virtual parties for most this year and I reckon fireworks will still be going off everywhere. Let’s hhope they will ward off bad spirits and 2021 will be a better year for us all.

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  5. In Israel, our real estate broker assured us that our new home had been hexed and we needed to get it exorcised.

    Exorcised? Seriously? But he meant it. We had to find a Cohen (the original holy order of Priests in Judaism) and he had to do a lot of praying. Then the neighbors had to be invited in bringing flour (so we’d never go hungry), oil (so life would be smooth), sugar (to keep life sweet) and wine (to — I assume — get the guests tipsy). And we did it. Eve when we didn’t know from whence the tradition evolved (I’m pretty sure most of them were pre-Judaic), we did them anyway. Thus are traditions passed on by both those who “know” and those who figure “it can’t hurt.”

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  6. Having the house cleaned from top to bottom before the bells was a big thing, as well as the first footer, who was supposed to be a tall, dark stranger. In those days no one batted an eye at inviting complete strangers in. One year my then (acquired that very night) boyfriend and I were making our way back from wherever we’d been when we were asked to come in and first foot a woman who was about to go to church for early mass and did not want to be her own first foot. We went in, accepted a drink and were left to help ourselves as she went off to church! I can’t imagine it happening nowadays. It is a shame when old customs die out – but I hope there will always be someone to remember and pass them on.

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