NOTE: This is an excerpt from my book, You Wouldn’t Believe! 44 Strange and Wondrous Delmarva Tales. It’s in a section of several stories about bits of folklore. Find out more about You Wouldn’t Believe (and my other books) here.
I first learned about this strange tradition regarding girls and New Year’s Day on the Secrets of the Eastern Shore Facebook page, thanks to a man named Kevin Cusick. He posed this question to the community on New Year’s Day, 2017:
When I was little MomMom used to wake me up early on New Year’s morning and send me on my way to all the windows in the neighborhood. Apparently, if a little boy was the first person to wish them happy New Year they would have good luck for the year and in return they all reached into their purses and gave me change. I’ve not found one other person my own age who ever did that, but I lived in a neighborhood of old-timers. Has anyone else from Chincoteague [Island, Va.] heard of this tradition?
Quite a few others soon chimed in with similar memories. A sampling:
Beth Messick: I’m from Salisbury, Md., not Chincoteague, but I do remember that it was forbidden for a female to be the first one in the door on New Year’s Day.
Christine: Growing up in [the towns of] Cambridge and Secretary, Md. I was always told that a male was supposed to be the first to enter your home on New Year’s Day if you wanted to avoid bad luck all year.
Liza: When I was a child on Hooper’s Island, my older sister’s husband always visited the neighbors on New Year’s Day so that a dark-haired man would be first in the door! And black-eyed peas were the traditional food, said to bring wealth in the new year.
Pamela Foley: As a girl growing up on Chincoteague, I was always jealous of the little boys who came [to our door and received] change on New Year’s Day. My mom would call across the street for the neighbor’s boy to come over for [his] change. I never knew why until now. Thanks!
Barbara Smalling: I was born and raised in Somerset County, in Fairmount, Md. I remember how, on January 1, Mr. Bankshire “Banks” Waters would be the first visitor to everyone’s home. He always wore a fur parka with a hood. He looked like an Eskimo! We children loved to see him come because he arrived with lots of brown bags of goodies: apples, oranges, nuts, and hard candy. After his arrival, we girls would be allowed to go outside of the house. However, we were not allowed to visit anyone because we were told that it would bring “bad luck” to the families we visited.
The Forgetfulness of Mabel Parks
In jumping down this rabbit hole, I found my way to a tradition folklorists refer to as “first-foot,” a reference to the first person across the threshold in a new year. It was big in Wales and the north of England in centuries gone by, and remains popular there today. The key distinction over there isn’t so much gender. Rather, it’s between dark-haired good luck and light-haired bad luck. The dark-haired good luck charms are supposed to bring symbolic gifts, like chunks of coal to go in the family hearth.
Folklorist Donna Heddle once speculated that the dark/light distinction might go back to the days when families in England and Wales were at risk of deadly raids by violent, light-haired Vikings. Other versions of the first-foot superstition have been traced to Serbia, Sweden, Greece, and the country of Georgia.
The late Tom Flowers–aka “The Old Honker”—was a famous storyteller from Dorchester County, Md. whose tales are collected in an out-of-print 1998 book, Shore Folklore: Growing Up with Ghosts, ’N Legends, ’N Tales, ’N Home Remedies.
Flowers grew up on Hoopers Island at a time—the late 1920s and early 1930s—when this legend was taken very, very seriously, so much so, he writes, that “pots of scalding water sat on the stoves for … a visitor” of the wrong gender. One of his stories focuses on a forgetful young woman. Apparently, the strict “first-foot” rules on Hoopers in those days applied not just to crossing the threshold of a home, but to stepping over a property line in the yard.
Mabel Parks forgot herself, completely forgot what day of the week it was, but more importantly forgot that it was New Year’s Day when she went to her neighbor’s well to draw water, but Evelyn Ruark had seen her and was deeply upset to think that Mabel would break such a well-kept tradition.
When Mabel did remember it later in the day, she just hoped that no one had seen her. It would be hard to get through the night without knowing. She would know the very first thing the next morning. As soon as it was light, she made her way to her good friend, Evie Ruark’s. The door was latched. She had been seen.
The Ruarks blamed all their bad luck on Mabel’s visit. They would not speak to her, but they let the community know that she was the cause of their problems. When [a family member,] Jane Ruark, died suddenly, they openly blamed [Mabel] and categorized her as an evil witch.
I could remember at least ten years of the argument. I must say that as a child, I always felt sorry for Miss Mabel—but … there were no “ifs, ands, or buts” for my father to accept any reason for a woman visiting another house on New Year’s Day.
Flowers notes that the rules were eased up a little bit as the years passed. In later times, women were allowed to visit on New Year’s Day, but only if a boy or man had come calling first.
A Pair of Postscripts
• First, a woman named Betty Parks provided the laugh-out-loud comment in all the back-and-forth when she said:
In 1977 the first visitor to my house was a single, dark hair, male. I married him later that year.
• Second, Laura Davis from Chincoteague Island chimed in with the news that this tradition is still alive and well on that Virginia island:
My mother-in-law does this. We take our boys out to the neighbors’ houses now!
–posted by Jim Duffy on Dec. 31, 2021 for Whimbrel Creations/Secrets of the Eastern Shore. All rights reserved.