Out with the old, in with the new – but traditions remain

FIRST AND LAST: Superstition surrounds first and last burials in churchyards like this one at St Peter’s, Osmotherley

FIRST AND LAST: Superstition surrounds first and last burials in churchyards like this one at St Peter’s, Osmotherley

First published in Countryman's Diary by

MANY of us will, by this early stage of the New Year, have completed our festive activities. Gone will be the remains of the Christmas dinner, the celebratory bottles, cakes and mince pies. The nights are getting lighter as each day passes and so we think of warmer times and getting outside into the fresh air more frequently.

A return to work will already have beckoned some of us while others may still be enjoying an extended holiday but I will hazard a guess that many will be wondering what 2013 has in store for themselves and for others, here and overseas.

Almost without exception, it heralds a new beginning.

A new year is like a lot of other things that are new.

We are rather hesitant about using new things especially those that are strange to us and our family.

Who would dare to be first to cross a new bridge? Or who would allow a loved one to be the first person to be buried in a new graveyard? And how many of us do not want to be first to arrive at a social gathering?

When New Year beckons we love to celebrate its arrival with some of us resorting to the ancient ritual of First Footing. This is a means of ensuring good fortune and we make all kinds of future plans and resolutions which we hope will improve our lives or bring happiness and contentment. That does not always happen as we would have wished and we find it far from easy to keep those resolutions made only a few days earlier. Living up to our own expectations is never a simple matter.

In considering the theme of newness, I thought I would examine some of those new things about which we are hesitant – such as new bridges. In days gone by, it was thought the Devil would claim the first living thing to cross a new bridge, especially one he had gifted to the community. Stories suggest the Devil would frequently offer to build a new bridge for a small community, but there was always a hidden price. He wanted someone’s life in return. To thwart the devil, people would send an animal across the bridge, a dog perhaps or even a pig or sheep, and so it would be claimed by The Evil One.

Whilst we might scoff at such beliefs, they do date into the proverbial mists of time and might have evolved from the dark days of old when it was thought necessary to bury some living creature within the foundations of a new building such as a house, castle, church or bridge. This incarceration was thought to bring security and strength to the building.

It may be, of course, that we don’t want to be first to cross a new bridge in case it collapses beneath our weight.

So far as the fear of being buried first in a new graveyard is concerned, this has been a feature of such places for centuries. It is very difficult to ascertain how, why and where it all started. Just as the belief that the first living thing to cross a new bridge would be taken by the Devil, so a similar theory affected churchyards.

People believed the soul of the first person to be buried in a new graveyard would be taken by the Devil.

In some cases, new churchyards remained empty until a passing tramp happened to die nearby and so his remains were interred in an attempt to appease Satan. In other cases, dogs or other animals were buried there first.

In similar fashion, the last person to be buried in a churchyard due for closure was thought doomed to become the Churchyard Watcher. His task was to safeguard the churchyard and all those buried there.

The next person to be buried then took over that task, and so if a churchyard was closed, it was logical that the last person buried there would assume that responsibility for ever and ever.

Not surprisingly there are similar beliefs affecting the birth of a new child. There was a long prevailing superstition that it was unlucky to bring a new cradle into the house before the birth of a child. In some parts of the north, a corresponding belief was that a cradle should be fully paid for before the birth, and in more modern times this notion was extended to prams.

It heralded bad luck if a baby used a pram that had not been paid for. In some households, it was believed that so long as a cradle was stored unused in a house, it would result in no more births.

It is quite surprising that some of these old superstitions were active even at the beginning of the National Health Service. I have come across an old idea that existed prior to the NHS arriving on the scene. In those days, the services of doctors had to be paid for just like those of any other professional person but it was considered unwise to pay a doctor’s bill in full.

It was believed that a small portion should be withheld to ensure that if he was needed again, he would attend. If you paid him in full, he might not turn up when next required. The proportion withheld on such occasions was inevitably very small.

This brings me back to my earlier comment – is it unlucky to be first to arrive at a social function?

T OMORROW is the Eve of Twelfth Night which heralds the end of the Christmas season, ie completion of The Twelve Days of Christmas.

In some places, depending when you started to count the days, January 5 was regarded as Twelfth Night but more widely, it was regarded as the Eve of Twelfth Night.

Next Sunday, January 6, is the more regularly accepted Twelfth Day when we are supposed to take down our Christmas trees and other decorations. I don’t know of any law or rule about this, except that if you leave them up for longer, it means bad luck will follow.

This coming Sunday’s real name is the Feast of the Epiphany, the meaning of epiphany being manifestation or appearance. It was the day when the Infant Jesus was revealed to the whole world when he was visited by the Three Wise Men from the East. In the North of England some centuries ago, this was the most celebrated of all the days of Christmas and in more recent times it was still known as Old Christmas Day.

Some weather forecasters of former days believed a chilly east wind this Sunday would herald a successful harvest in the autumn. For that, we can only wait and see.

The foregoing means this coming weekend will mark the end of yet another Christmas season. We will consider our past and our future as we ponder the trials, tribulations, joys and celebrations to come.

I wish everyone a happy and prosperous New Year.


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