The Wheel of the Year Turns: Customs for New Year’s Eve By Lucya Starza
While New Year’s Eve celebrations might seem non-religious, some customs are close to what our pagan ancestors got up to. Historically, New Year’s Eve got a boost after the Reformation in the 16th century, when Christmas festivities came under attack as being too Catholic. In Scotland, people switched their celebrations to December 31st and the feast got called Hogmanay. The origins of the word probably come from a French term for New Year. Professor Ronald Hutton in The Stations of the Sun writes that what Lowlanders, at least, got up to was: “much closer to the pattern of the pagan Vikings and Saxons and perhaps of the ancient British as well.” One Scottish custom before New Year was saining – or burning herbs including juniper as a cleansing rite – which could hark back to pagan times.
Hogmanay traditions usually include gift-giving and visiting friends and neighbours. Melusine Draco writes in Have a Cool Yule that: “special attention [is] given to the custom of first-footing – honouring the first guest of the New Year.” It’s particularly lucky if the first guest is a dark-haired man. Any who normally live in the home and match that description might get sent outside into the cold and not let back in until the last stroke of midnight, ideally bringing a piece of coal – another omen of good fortune for the year to come.
Divining the Future
When I was a child, my family would often do divination and fortune telling on New Year’s Eve, usually after an evening of party games. We sometimes used playing cards for fortune telling or tried scrying using an old glass fishing float as a crystal ball. The end of one year and the start of a new one is a traditional time for looking to see what the future might hold. Professor Hutton writes that divination practices by ancient Scandinavian and Norse people lingered and that in the 12th century, Bartholomew Iscanus, Bishop of Exeter, prescribed penance for those keeping the New Year with heathen rites and these almost certainly included divinatory customs.
One Finnish New Year’s Eve tradition still done today is fortune-telling with melted lead. The equipment to do it properly is a lump of lead, a little metal pan to melt it in, and a bowl to fill with cold water. Everyone takes it in turn to tip a little melted lead into the water. The shape it solidifies into indicates what they can expect in the year to come. You can do something similar with the melted wax of a candle and cold water. Or, of course, you can use any fortune telling or divination system you are used to.
If you use tarot, oracle cards, dark mirrors, crystals or tea leaves, try exercising your intuition rather than immediately referring for meanings. Trust in the magic of the universe and use your senses that aren’t purely reason or logic. Pay attention to what your heart is saying as well as what your head is telling you. True witchcraft means developing your awareness that there’s more to life than what you can immediately see. If you don’t already have a preferred method of divination, this a good time to explore what works for you. Pick a new set of oracle or tarot cards, or learn to scry. I would, of course, recommend my own book Pagan Portals – Scrying, on how to use crystal balls, mirrors, water or fire to divine the answers to questions or see into the future, but you could just choose the object you want to divine with and let your intuition be your guide.
This is part of a series of posts I’m writing for the Moon Books Blog on the theme of the Wheel of the Year. They will be compiled and edited into a book: Pagan Portals – Wheel of the Year. Other books by Lucya Starza in the Pagan Portals series include Candle Magic, Guided Visualisations, Poppets and Magical Dolls, and Scrying. Lucya edited the community book Every Day Magic – A Pagan Book of Days.
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