Tuesday 26 December 2017

First footer

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 and Bulgarians) until today:

In Bulgaria, the first footer ceremony is performed on the 20th of December. This day is in the Orthodox church celebrated as the feast of St. Ignatius (Ignazhden). Bulgarians believe that Virgin Mary went into labor on that day and that the labor took 5 days. Remember the 5 dead days from Serbian folklore, the five days which are left over between the end of the 12 months of 30 days and the beginning of the new solar year? Bulgarians call 20th of December "Nov Dan" (New Day) and all the rituals performed on this day are the rituals related to the beginning of the new year, the birth of new sun. It is interesting that the root of the name Ignatius is Latin "ignis"meaning fire, which comes from the same PIE root which gives us Slavic "oganj" meaning fire and Sanskrit Agni. December 20 is also called Polazovden because on this day polaznik (first footer) visits homes. According to the old Bulgarian tradition, this first visitor is charged with bringing luck to the house. His luck, his diligence or laziness, his ability to say kind words or on the contrary, bitter ones, will be transferred onto the house whose first visitor he or she is. The luck of the family will be the same as the luck of this first visitor on Polazovden.

On the night before Polazovden or Ignazhden the housewife arranges the table with vegan dishes and a big ring-shaped bun. This bun is for the first guest who comes to the house on the day of the feast, and he or she should break the bun above the hearth. She also takes a spoonful from the boiled grains, tries its taste and sprinkles the rest over the hearth so as to bless chickens and the wheat in the fields. Throwing the grain she should chant as follows, “as many the embers in the fire, as rich the harvest during the year”. 

On Polazovden (Ignazhden) the housewife goes out in the yard and makes a circle using the waistband of her husband. She feeds the chickens within this circle and takes care that they will lay eggs in their own lay-place, because the egg laid on Polazovden should be kept at home. She also has to clean soot from chimney to make the fire place ready to meet the first visitor bringing with him or her the future. The polaznik (the first guest on that day) enters the house with the greeting, Glorify the Young God. He or she sits by the fire, takes a twig and stirs the fire blessing the house to have as many chickens as the sparkles in the fire. 

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 then throws the grain out before the threshold, or throws it 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.

Having said that, he moves the log a little forward and throws a coin into the fire. The woman of the house puts a woolen blanket on the položajnik back or even better a sheepskin coat. The položajnik is then offered to seat on a low stool by the fireplace. In some places a cushion filled with feathers is placed on the stool, so that chicken will lay many eggs in the next year. In the moment when he sits down, people from the house try to pull away the stool beneath him, as if to make him fall on the floor. This is done "to make raptor birds die". The položajnik goes out into the yard, and throws grain inside a circle made with the rope with which Christmas wheat straw sheaf was tied before the straw was strewn on the house floor, all the way calling chickens to come. When they gather in the circle he catches a rooster, whose head is then cut off by him or the head of the household on the house doorstep. The rooster is roasted on a wooden spit as part of Christmas dinner. The položajnik usually stays for dinner with the family. He receives a gift in the form of a round cake with an embedded coin, and a towel, shirt, socks, or some other useful thing.

We can see what the Položajnik ceremony looks like in this excellent documentary video entitled "Božićni običaji u Gornjem Račniku" (Christmas customs in the village Upper Račnik).

Ethnographers believe that originally položajnik was embodiment of a divine being. Knowing that in the past the main god of the Serbs was Dabog, the Giving god, it is possible that this divine being which people expected to visit heir homes was in fact Dabog. In Serbian mythology, Dabog, was at the same time the Sun god and the god of the Underworld. This can at the first glance seem contradictory. But Serbs believed that every morning, sun leaves his palace through its eastern gate, drives across the sky in his chariot, and goes back into his palace through its western gate. His palace is under ground, in the Underworld. Hence Dabog, the sun god, is also the god of the Underworld. Dabog, who was also known as Djed (grandfather), was by Serbs considered to be their progenitor.  In the past, Serbs believed that the ancestors come back to visit their descendants on the day of the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. When the Winter Solstice was replaced with Christmas, the day when the ancestors come to visit became Christmas Eve. And on the Christmas Day, Dabog, the ancestor of all Serbs, would come to visit some houses, taking the shape of an unexpected visitor. A visit from a Giving God, if people of the house he visited treated him well, would certainly ensure prosperity of the family. But visits from Dabog were rare. And in his absence, people invented položajnik as the replacement for the Divine visitor.

In Some parts of Serbia, položajnik arrives to the house carrying a round bread stuck to his hat.

This type of bread is called "kolač" (from "kolo" meaning "spinning circle, wheel") or  "kovrtanj", "kovrtač" (from "kolo vrti", meaning "spinning wheel" or from "koje vrti" meaning "which spins, which is spun"). These types of breads are associated with winter solstice magical rituals performed to ensure grain fertility. I wrote about these types of breads in my post "Bogovo gumno - God's threshing floor". They symbolise the solar year, never ending solar cycle. I wonder if the bread was carried to symbolically indicate that položajnik was indeed the sun god Dabog in human form...

Until the first half of the 20th century, in some parts of Serbia položajnik also took with them a domestic animal, sheep, ox, swine, or calf, into the house. In the west Serbian region of Rađevina, centered on the town of Krupanj, the head of household would place a sheep between himself and the fireplace, and pronounce the aforementioned words while striking the badnjak with a branch cut from it. In the region of Bihor, north-eastern Montenegro, a round loaf of bread with a hole in its center was prepared; four grooves were impressed into its surface along two mutually perpendicular diameters of the loaf. After an ox was led into the house, the loaf was put on his horn, and some grain was thrown on the ox. Yanking his head, the ox would throw off the loaf; having fallen down, the loaf would break into four pieces along the grooves. The pieces were picked up and distributed among the family members. This custom was preserved up to the 1950s even in some Muslim families of the region. 

In some parts of Lika, the animal which is brought into the house by položajnik was a rooster. Položajnik, would first go to the chicken coop and would catch a rooster. He would then throw a rooster over the house roof from east to west. He would then catch the rooster again and would bring it into the house. Once inside, položajnik would sit at the table holding the rooster on his laps. Both položajnik and rooster would be given bread and vine until rooster was drunk :) When the time came for položajnik to leave the house, the woman of the house would throw the grain on the rooster. 

And in some parts of Eastern Serbia položajnik came on St. Ignatius day (20th of December), just like in Bulgaria. But in Eastern Serbia this day was called "Chicken Christmas" and položajnik that  came on that day was called "kokošiji položajnik" (chicken first footer)...

I think that all these association of the first footer custom among Serbs with the chicken is very interesting, considering the fact that in some parts of England, the first footer was called "the lucky bird"???

Ethnologists consider that the ritual involving animal is the most ancient version of the položajnik ritual. It is believed that the animals that položajnik brings with them into the house were originally sacrificial animals which were after the ceremony sacrificed. The sheepskin coat or woollen blanket which is today used to cover human položajnik was probably once a skin of the animal which was sacrificed the previous year.  

Interestingly, in some parts of Serbia položajnik visits homes twice. Once on Christmas Day and once on New Year Day, which is in Serbia called Little Christmas. This is very important, as it shows that originally the ceremony was performed on New Year Day, which was originally Winter Solstice day, the day when new sun is born...

Excellent sources of information about this custom:

"Polaznik, polaženik: Prvi božićni gost čestitar" by Branko Đakovic
"Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Paganby Miles, Clement A. 
"Mit i religija Srba" by Veselin Čajkanović

Now it is amazing that while in England, Scotland, Greece and Georgia the first footer is a relatively simple ritual, in Serbia we find this elaborate archaic ritual role play. How are these rituals related? Do they all have the same ancient root, or is it possible that the root of all these rituals is the Slavic one which somehow got transplanted to England, Scotland, Greece and Georgia?

In Greece this custom originated in Peloponnesus. We know that South Slavs settled in Peloponnesus in 7th century. By 700 AD most of the Peloponneus was a large "Sklavenia". Before the Byzantine reconquista, only Thessaloniki and its hinterland and most of the eastern coast of continental Hellas and Peloponnese along with isolated coastal cities remained under Byzantine political Authority. 

In "Geographi graeci minores" published by Karl Müller in 1855 we can read:

The 10th century Byzantine anonymous epitomizer of Strabo wrote:

«Καὶ νῦν δὲ πᾶσαν Ἤπειρον καὶ Ἑλλάδα σχεδὸν καὶ Πελοπόννησον καὶ Μακεδονίαν Σκύθαι Σκλάβοι νέμονται»

"And now most of Epirus and Hellas and Peloponnesus and Macedonia are inhabited by 'Scythian' (=uncivilized) Slavs" 

In the late 11th century, the Patriarch Nicholas Grammatikos describes the Slavic colonization of the Peloponnese in a letter to emperor Alexios Komnenos with the words:

«Έπί διακοσίοις δεκαοκτώ χρόνοις όλοις κατεσχόντων την Πελοπόννησον, και της Ρωμαϊκής αρχής αποτεμομένων, ως μηδέ πόδα βαλείν όλως δύνασθαι εν αυτή Ρωμαίον άνδρα»

"For 218 years that the Slavs have held Peloponnesus cut off from the Roman empire so that no Roman could set his foot in the region"

A lot of Slavic population was later resettled in Asia Minor. But even today, according to the latest genetic data, in some parts of Peloponnesus local population still has up to 14% Slavic genes...

So I would say that there is a fair chance that the first footer custom from Peloponnesus could have a Slavic origin. 

For Georgia the data is a bit thin. We know that large number of South Slavs was settled by Byzantium in Asia Minor during early medieval time. They were elite soldiers who settled in border areas with their families, where they protected the Byzantine borders from Muslim attacks. But later a lot of these Slavs joined the Muslim armies and we know that they settled in among other places, Georgia. So it is possible that this custom originated with these Slavic settlers. 

But what about the Scottish and English tradition? Well it is very possible that they are an early medieval import from Slavic lands of south Baltic. 

"The origin of Anglo - Saxon race", is a book published in 1906 by Thomas William Shore, author of 'a history of Hampshire,' etc, Honorary secretary London and Middlesex archaeological society; honorary Organizing secretary of the Hampshire field club and Archaeological society. According to him, south Baltic Slavs were part of the Angle confederation during the Anglo - Saxon invasions of Britain. And they settled in North England, right where we find the first footer custom. 

We also know that south Baltic Slavs were a major part of the Danish Viking confederation which invaded Britain and Scotland. Armies lead by Harald Bluetooth, who was married to an Obodrite Slavic princess, and his descendants, all the way to Cnut the Great, whose mother was a Polish princess, had large number of Slavic soldiers in their ranks. These Slavic Vikings probably settled in Britain and Scotland with their Danish comrades, right in places where we find first footer custom. 

So it is possible that this custom arrived indeed arrived to England and Scotland with these Slavic immigrants.

So as you can see, the first footer custom from England, Scotland, Greece and Georgia may indeed have originated in the above Slavic custom.

Or maybe not :) Maybe Serbs, who were once described as the most conservative people in Europe, just preserved more of the original old pan European ritual...

What do you think of all this?


  1. https://redakcjabb.pl/6673/polazy

  2. In Vietnam, the first person to enter a house during Lunar New Year (Tet) is a good luck-bearer.

  3. Podarenko zvuci kao onaj koji daruje ili koga daruju.
    Polozajnik moze da bude I onaj koji lozi koji potpaljuje.
    Samo primecujem.....

  4. I was surprised about a tradition my family practiced every New Year's eve. I grew up in Pennsylvania. If a man outside the family walked through the door first, that would bring the family good luck for the year.

  5. In East Poland even now, if the first person SEEN on X-mas Eve day is a man outside of the family, that means he brings good luck for the next year.