There are so many New Year’s traditions I’ve taken part in for years without thinking about why. Blowing noisemakers. Watching fireworks. Eating black-eyed peas. All fun, delicious and loud.
But at a recent cocktail party, I heard a new one, or at least one new to me.
“Do you know the one where a man has to be the first person to come into your house on New Year’s Day for good luck?” a friend asked. No, friend, I did not! Was this a Baltimore thing or a Black thing, I wondered.
“It’s not necessarily a Baltimore thing, but for sure a Black thing,” someone else confirmed.
There are obviously more pressing things happening in the world right now, but I immediately pledged to get to the bottom of this important cultural phenomenon, because I’m fascinated by the sociology of beliefs and customs, and also because this seemed super weird. I just had to know: Is this a Baltimore thing? A Black thing?
I immediately started exploring all the usual channels — Google, Facebook friends, Miss Peaches, my godmother who’s both Black and from Baltimore, and, finally, an actual academic who’s done research.
And what I found was that while the “first footing” tradition most certainly is not, at least originally, a Black or Baltimore thing, it certainly is a thing.
“My father calls to make sure. ‘Did you cross the threshold first?’ I get that every year,” said Malcolm Drewery, the aforementioned academic and assistant professor and chair of the department of applied and social sciences at Coppin State University. “I’ve practiced this in my household growing up before I knew anything about the real history behind it.”
I wondered if this is all just a fun tradition or something people really believe can affect your luck for the next 365 days.
“These things are taken very seriously,” Drewery confirmed.
My friend at the party told me her grandmother makes her wait in the car if she shows up first on New Year’s Day until a male relative comes in the house first. That seems like a lot, but I’ve learned not to question what works for other people, because that’s not my place and because you’re not gonna blame me for your bad luck. I don’t need that on my conscience.
What “first footing” and other New Year’s traditions across cultures boil down to is a celebration of the hope of renewal and abundance that each new year represents, Drewery said. For instance, Chinese New Year’s tradition holds that the whole house must be swept out to get rid of the previous year’s bad luck. The ancient Greeks believed that Dionysus, the god of fertility and partying, was reincarnated as a baby at the start of each year. They paraded infants around in cradles, becoming the template for the modern Baby New Year. The ancient Romans gave tribute to the god Janus, who had two faces — one looking behind at the old year and one looking ahead to the new one.
Drewery adds that Janus, for whom the month of January is named, is also the god of gates and doors, which is why the tradition of the first foot across that door or threshold — in some cultures, ideally a person who has money in their pocket — is so crucial. But why does it have to be a man? He thinks it was probably because of the male-dominated culture of the time these traditions were established, and that men represent strength.
That tracks. Miss Peaches, or Delores Allen, a Baltimore native now living in Texas, said she thought “that a man is supposed to bring good luck if he enters the house first [to] make sure it’s safe for the female to come in.” And my friend KellyShannon Pierce in Arbutus said she picked up the practice from a roommate’s family 30 years ago and has followed it to the point that if we didn’t have a man, we would take out our male pets, normally a cat, and have them enter the home first.”
That’s some commitment! Last year, Pierce said, “We used the technicality that my child is gender-fluid and counted,” although she admitted that my question is making her possibly reconsider the tradition. That’s kind of cool.
Because I’m now officially obsessed with this thing, I did a little more digging and found out that first footing has roots in England and Scotland, where the first person through the door must be a dark-haired man, perhaps because those countries had been invaded by the Vikings and they didn’t trust blond people. Isn’t that wild? Drewery said he’d also heard that the first-footer should have dark hair or dark skin, “and if that person who comes in is carrying food, wine and a flaming candle, even better,” he said.
The type of food that man is carrying is important as well. The traditional black-eyed peas represent abundance, and the leaves of collard greens or cabbage used to make sauerkraut look like folded money. Pork, Drewery said, is good luck “because pigs use their snouts to push things forward. It’s not good luck for the pigs, however.”
A good point. Moment of silence for the pig.
Some of these traditions are familiar to me from childhood, like the symbolism of black-eyed peas. Others, like eating sauerkraut, were ones I didn’t learn until later. I like that I’m learning about traditions new to me even at this late age. In some small way, it feels like a new way to connect to people. I can’t see doing the first footing thing, because the only male in my house is 9 years old and waking him up and making him walk out onto the stoop and then back inside in his jammies doesn’t seem like good luck to me.
But then again, who knows how luck works?