First Foot

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December 30, 2011 by Lain

by Ali Ravenwood

The British Isles are a treasure trove of folklore, a place where monuments to the Old Gods still stand, where wood spirits still roam the forest, and local folk traditions retain the flavor of the ancient Pagan rituals from which they sprang.  In small towns and villages all across western Europe, unique and curious local customs persist, relics of the region’s Pagan past. Some, like Morris Dancers and the Maypole on the first of May, are common practices across the four isles even in modern times. Other customs are less well known, remnants of a much older culture whose history has been lost in time, but whose rituals remain part of the collective unconscious of the land and its people. One of these is the Yuletide custom of “First Foot”, a quaint practice found in rural areas of Scotland even to the present day. In recent years it has been performed on December 31st, but historical sources trace it back to Twelfth Night (January 6), and even further to the long night before the winter solstice.

The custom is based on principles of sympathetic magic; the focus of the rite is to end the festival season in a position in which one wishes to remain for the coming year. Every house in the village is turned out and scrubbed from top to bottom. New clothing is purchased, and cupboards and larders stocked with food, including traditional Yuletide treats like fruitcake and shortbread. Each member of the household procures a bottle of good liquor (whiskey for the gentlemen, sherry for the ladies) to be used for the occasion. Pockets and purses are filled with as much cash money as possible, to safeguard the omen for a prosperous year.

Preparations become frantic as evening approaches, for everything must  be ready before midnight. At twelve o’clock, villagers must  be inside their warm and spotless homes, dressed in their finery, coiffed and perfumed. Anyone caught out of doors runs the risk of being swept up in the terrible Wild Hunt, a winter phantasm described in myth and legend all over western and central Europe. Those who ran afoul of the Wild Hunt risked being kidnapped and carried off to the Land of the Dead. When the clock strikes twelve, the house is considered to be magically “sealed”, and no one is permitted to leave until the arrival of the First Foot.

The First Foot is, simply, the first person to step over the home’s threshold after midnight. Usually, this individual is pre-selected according to a specific set of criteria: a young man, with dark hair and a muscular build, is considered preferable for the job. In fact, it is exceedingly unlucky to be first-footed by a fair-haired person! The description of an appropriate First Foot matches that of the mythical character Old Nick, a trickster-like spirit closely tied to the Christian devil, but widely believed by modern historians to be based on the Pagan deity, the Horned God.

Once the First Foot has crossed the threshold, he is greeted with a glass of liquor by the host, and offers a drink from his own bottle in return. He  then lays bread, coal and salt upon the hearth, traditional offerings to the Goddess for blessing the household. Once this ritual has been satisfactorily performed, the magical seal is broken and members of the household are free to go out and First Foot their neighbours.

As the rite involves the consumption of many glasses of liquor by the First Foot, it is not completely surprising that he would sometimes fail to complete his rounds of the village. Therefore, other physically suitable males, once freed from the spell in their own homes, will take it upon themselves to First Foot their neighbours. Occasionally, some household might be forgotten in the excitement; after a period of time has passed, the most suitable member of the household will sneak out the back door and come round to the front to perform the honours himself. Even in modern times, traditional folk continue to honour the Old Gods in the old ways.

Ali Ravenwood is a local Priestess, writer, mother, and “Elder” in the Edmonton Pagan Community. Learn more about Ali in Northern Tribes’ Interview With Ali Ravenwood

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