Sunday, 1 January 2012

4 Days Without a Book! Countdown to Publication #12: You make your own luck! Customs to welcome in the New Year.

15 Days Without a Head will be in bookshops in 4 days time. By way of celebration, I will be publishing a new post here every day, leading up to publication on Thursday. The idea is to provide a few bonus items, such as you'd expect to find on the extras disc of a DVD – except these will be available before the main feature of course.

The theme of luck runs throughout 15 Days Without a Head. DJ Baz, is constantly asking Laurence, “Do you feel lucky?” This was deliberately ironic, given that for most of the book Laurence is having a hard time and could be forgiven for thinking he is the unluckiest person in the world. It is only when Laurence feels that fate is so stacked against him, that he might as well give up, that he remembers his Nanna's belief that luck can be influenced:

You make your own luck – that’s what Nanna used to say. She believed that if you expected the worst, that’s what you’d get. But if you counted on good things happening, then they usually would. The Power of Positive Thought, she called it.”
(from 15 Days Without a Head)

It is strange when you consider that luck, by definition, is random, and yet every day people modify their behaviour in attempts to influence it: not walking under ladders; wearing lucky underpants to watch football (or is that just me?); not opening an umbrella inside the house. There is no scientific reason why these things should change what happens to us, and yet if we break a mirror, many of us might admit to a momentary feeling of uneasiness about the seven years bad luck the superstition warns of.

Given these tendencies, it’s not surprising that there are many New Year customs around the world, designed to bring good luck in the following twelve months. The first twenty four hours are believed to be crucial and will have a huge impact on the fortunes that follow. 

Many customs in this country concern themselves with the idea of luck flowing into or out of the house. First-footing is probably the most well known. The details vary from region to region and have evolved over time, but all varieties seem to involve the person doing the first-footing (ie. the first person to enter a dwelling in the New Year) having a lucky characteristic – dark hair, for example – and carrying certain objects – coal, is a common one.

First-footing from Punch, 1897

There were also widely held beliefs in the nineteenth century, that it was inviting bad luck to let anything leave the house on New Year’s Day, especially fire.
“At any other time they would be quite happy to let a neighbour or stranger take a live coal or taper to light their lantern or house fire, but not at New Year.”  – The English Year
Another superstition that may provide a legitimate excuse to steer clear of the laundry basket today, is that it was thought to be extremely dangerous to wash clothes on New Year’s Day, as you would be “washing out” one of the occupants of the house (ie. they would die in the following year!) On the other hand, for those fond of washing (themselves) it may be worth noting the Herefordshire custom regarding the “Cream of the Well”. Servants would sit up to see the New Year in and then rush to draw the first water from the well, as it was “thought to be beautifying and lucky. The maid who succeeded in getting it would take it to the bedroom of her mistress, who would give a present for it.” * Unfortunately, I'm not sure the first water from the tap has quite the same properties.

As well as doing everything they could to ‘make their own luck’ for the following year, many people would go so far as to try and obtain a peek into their future
“before retiring to rest the old women opened their Bibles at haphazard to find out their luck for the coming year. The text on which the forefinger of the right hand rested was supposed to foretell the future.” – Folk-Lore Journal, 1886
Of course, this method left much room for interpretation and was the subject of some discussion during the following day. The bible was the book of choice, but other texts, especially poetry, were seen to be just as effective, especially if you were worried about using the Bible for such a purpose. I did consider trying this using 15 Days Without a Head, but I’ll admit to being a little bit superstitious at the best of times and chickened out. You’re welcome to have a go though, I’d be interested to hear what the pages predict!

Happy New Year!

* Much of the information above was taken from The English Year by Steve Roud, a fascinating book for anyone interested in folklore.

Tomorrow: My 15 Days Without a Head playlist.

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