Old European Culture: First footer (Pierwsza Stopa)

In Scottish and Northern English folklore, the first-foot, also known in Manx Gaelic as „quaaltagh” or „qualtagh”, is the first person to enter the home of a household on New Year’s Day and a bringer of good fortune for the coming year.

However in „Christmas in Ritual and Tradition” we can read that in Yorkshire first footer used to come on Christmas morning as well as New Year’s day.

Although it is acceptable in many places for the first-footer to be a resident of the house, they must not be in the house at the stroke of midnight in order to first-foot (thus going out of the house after midnight and then coming back into the same house is not considered to be first-footing). It is said to be desirable for the first-foot to be a tall, dark-haired male; a female or fair-haired male are in some places regarded as unlucky. In Worcestershire, luck is ensured by stopping the first carol singer who appears and leading him through the house. In Yorkshire it must always be a male who enters the house first, but his fairness is no objection.

On entering, the first-footer would sometimes remain silent until he had poked the fire, or had placed coal on it, and several references maintain that he should enter by the front and leave by the back door.

The first-foot usually brings several gifts, including perhaps a coin (silver is considered good luck), bread, salt, coal, evergreen, and/or a drink (usually whisky), which represent financial prosperity, food, flavour, warmth, long-life, and good cheer respectively. In Scotland, first-footing has traditionally been more elaborate than in England, and involving subsequent entertainment.

In some parts of England the first footer was also called „the lucky bird”.

In almost all cases the first-footer was rewarded with food, drink, and/or money, and people who fitted the local idea for first-footer often made a substantial sum by going from house to house (by arrangement) early on New Year’s Day.

This is an illustration from the article „The First Foot” – A Scottish Custom on New Year’s Eve, published in „The Illustrated London News” on the 30th Dec 1882

What most people in England and Scotland don’t know, is that a very similar custom also exists in Greece and Georgia

In Greece the first footer is known as „pothariko” or „podariko” (from pod – foot), it is believed that the first person to enter the house on New Year’s Eve brings either good luck or bad luck. Many households to this day keep this tradition and specially select who enters first into the house.

The person entering the house must do so with their right foot first so that everything will go „right” for the household the whole year. Upon entering the house he or she throws with force a pomegranate to the floor and as it splatters all over the place s/he wishes that the house will have such an abundance of health, joy and goods all year long!

After the ceremony the lady of the house serves the guests with Christmas treats or gives them an amount of money to ensure that good luck will come in the New Year.

In Georgia the first footer is called „mekvle” (from „kvali” – footstep, footprint, trace). During the New Year party, at midnight, people pause their celebration and wait for Mekvle to arrive. This is the person who is the first to congratulate the New Year. He may be from the family or he may be a friend that has had good fortune, health, wealth, has parents or children, or is not in mourning. Everyone eagerly waits for this person to come through the door. When he arrives, he throws candy and sweets at everyone. It means that all that year will be sweet and spent in harmony and peace.

What most people in England, Scotland, Greece and Georgia don’t know is that similar although much more elaborate and archaic ritual, was once performed in all Slavic lands of Central Europe, from Balkans to Baltic. This ritual was an integral part, and one of the most important parts of the Christmas celebration. In the 20th century, this ritual was best preserved by Serbs living in the Balkans (Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania).

In his work „´Polaznik´ u južnych slavjan, majar, slovakov, poljakov i ukrajincev” Petr Bogatyrev postulated that this custom originated with South Slavs. I would be more than grateful if someone has this book in digital format or even better if someone has a link to the book on the web.

I don’t have description of these rituals from Slovakia, Czech Republic, Ukraine and Hungary, but here is the description of the ritual which was recorded in Poland.

In Poland, the first footer could have been called „polazy” but I am not sure. V. Čajkanović in his article: „Tri božićna običaja” (Three christmas customs), which was later published in „Mit i religija Srba” (Myth and religion of the Serbs) talks about a catholic church report from the 15th century, which used to be kept in St Petersburg library, which says that in some parts of Poland, people have these three Christmas customs:

1. They never give fire from their fire place to anyone on Christmas eve and day
2. They select especially lucky people to be the first to visit their homes on Christmas day
3. They ask wolves to come and dine with them

The reason why Petr Bogatyrev thought that the Slavic first footer custom originated in the Balkans, is because the most elaborate and the most archaic version of this custom was preserved by South Slavs (mostly Serbs) until today:

The first footer is in Serbia called „polaznik”, „polažajnik”, „položajnik”, „polaženik”, „položar”, „položnjak” or „radovan”. He is the first person who visits the family on Christmas Day. This visit may be fortuitous or pre-arranged. People expect that it will summon prosperity and well-being for their household in the ensuing year. A family often picks in advance a lucky and happy man or a boy, and arranges that he visit them on Christmas morning. If this proves to be lucky for the family, he is invited again next year to be the položajnik. If not, they send word to him not to come any more in that capacity. In some areas of Serbia women with lots of children can also play the role of the first footer.

Položajnik is not allowed to eat anything in his own house. The first bit of food that he put in his mouth on the Christmas Day has to be eaten in the house he visits as položajnik. Položajnik brings with him an oak branch, a plum branch and a handful of grain, and sometimes silver coin. When he arrives to the house he is visiting, položajnik steps into the house with his right foot first, greeting the gathered family, „Christ is Born, Happy Christmas.” He carries grain in his glove, which he shakes out before the threshold, or throws at the family members. They respond with „Truly He is Born,” and throw grain at the položajnik  He then approaches the fireplace, takes a poker or a branch, and strikes repeatedly the burning badnjak (Yule log) to make sparks fly from it. At the same time he utters these words (or similar):

Koliko varnica, toliko sreće u ovoj kući.
Koliko varnica, toliko u domaćinskom džepu novaca.
Koliko varnica, toliko u toru ovaca.
Koliko varnica, toliko prasadi i jaganjaca.
Koliko varnica, toliko gusaka i piladi,
a najviše zdravlja i veselja.

How many sparks, that much happiness in this house.
How many sparks, that much money in the household head’s pocket.
How many sparks, that many sheep in the pen.
How many sparks, that many pigs and lambs.
How many sparks, that many geese and chickens,
and most of all, health and joy.

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