Debbie Clarke: experiencing a bout of ‘Januarius’

Debbie Clarke
Debbie Clarke

The Scots are well-known for celebrating Hogmanay. We tend go to house parties, pubs or ceilidhs with friends.

Or, if we are more adventurous, we travel over the Forth to Edinburgh to brave the elements outside in the city streets.

I had thought most people celebrated a new year at roughly the same time (give or take a day or two). Not so.

Not all countries or cultures toast New Year on January 1.

The Chinese, Egyptian, Jewish and Romans all have different dates. The Chinese New Year starts on a different day each year.

And did you know that thousands of years ago, the Egyptians marked their New Year in the middle of June? This was the time of year when the River Nile usually overflowed.

The Julian Calendar places the New Year on January 14 and the Jewish New Year is celebrated in late September. In ancient Rome, the first day of the New Year honoured Janus - the god of gates, doors, beginnings and endings. The month of January, named after him, was originally known as ‘Januarius’.

First Foot

Janus is thought to have had two faces - one which looked ahead to see what the new year would bring and the other looked back to see what had happened in the past year.

Ancient Romans celebrated by giving gifts to friends and family members, while some even offered presents to senators in exchange for favours.

In Scotland we have the tradition of ‘first footing’ on New Year’s Day.

The first foot in the house after midnight is still very common in Scotland and ensures good luck for the property.

The first foot should be male and dark (this theory dates back to the days of the Vikings when blond strangers arriving at your door meant trouble!) and should bring symbolic coal, shortbread, salt, black bun and whisky.

It is thought to be lucky to receive coal on New Year’s Day and is meant to represent warmth for the year to come.

In England Druid priests toasted their New Year on March 10.

They gave branches of miseltoe to people for charms. Later English people followed the custom of cleaning their chimneys on New Year’s Day, believing it brought good luck to the household for the coming 12 months.

The phrase ‘cleaning the slate’ or ‘wiping the slate clean’ is believed to have originated from this custom.


People also pledge to make themselves better in the new year and that is why it has become customary to draw up a list of New Year resolutions.

This list can include all sorts - being more charitable, less grumpy, starting a diet or joining a gym. I always find it amusing because every year the same thing happens. Gym memberships across Scotland swell and you find yourself struggling to get booked into your favourite keep fit classes because they are full.

This usually lasts for two to three months and soon, those well-meaning people who were full of good intentions at the start of the year actually can’t be bothered (as it is too much effort) and stop.

It’s the same with diets. People start out detoxing and cut out their favourite chocolates, crisps and fizzy juice. This too goes well for a few weeks, but they soon start to realise having their favourite chocolate biscuit with a cup of tea every so often doesn’t do any harm!

So, I think it would work better if we came up with New Year resolutions which were actually realistic and achievable; something simple like trying to be kinder and more charitable or making more of an effort to keep in touch with family and friends.

Sticking to that list however, is another matter entirely ...