Dark Face at the Door

Watching TV with my mum over Christmas there was a programme on featuring some of the oldest buildings known in Scotland. Discussing them was Scottish comedian and historical tour guide Bruce Fummey, who is black; relevant, as when discussing old New Year traditions, he said he’d have been a very welcome visitor due to being so thanks to the tradition that the first person over the threshold once the New Year commenced should be of dark hue.

My grandfather—mum’s dad—was also from Scotland; my mum said she remembered this tradition from her childhood, which was in London (she being born there), predominately growing up in Dudley House, Paddington, the family having been lucky enough to be offered one of the council flats built in 1938.

In having bathrooms and toilets within flats and a communal washroom in the block, the now demolished and seemingly—if the net is anything to go by—rarely photographed block of fifty flats was thought incredibly modern, despite the lack of lift for the four above ground floors.

There was also the playground, of which I retain the vaguest memories of the see-saw, which had nothing but a concrete floor; though that remained commonplace for a few years to come.

That dark face at the door tradition wasn’t something practiced by their flat alone due to having a Scottish father; at the time it was commonplace across London (and therefore the country?). It went hand-in-hand with the ‘renewal tradition’ of opening the front and back doors at the same time while banging pots and pans loudly to see out the old and bring in the new.

Quite how the seeing out the old aspect worked in flats—open the window furthest from the door, perhaps (Dudley House flats didn’t have balconies)—didn’t occur to me until just now while writing.

Mum told me that the flats had a resident who worked delivering coal and was always marked to some degree or other by the stuff. The block as a community had him visit each flat from the turn of midnight, where he’d be invited in and cordially given a good dram of whiskey as reward (he’d apparently be somewhat paralytic drunk long before the job was done).

Given the usual characteristics of ‘renewal’ traditions—‘light’ being a general feature—the ‘dark person at the door’ doesn’t fit with that normally found in good vs. bad spirit-related superstitions.

Bruce Fummey offered a possible explanation: that the tradition originated from the time of Viking raids, when the then all dark-haired inhabitants of the British Isles would’ve been noticeably darker than the fair-haired-and-skinned Scandinavians turning up to cause all sorts of mayhem and trouble. It was therefore thought a good omen for the year to come if the first person across the threshold was clearly friend not foe.

With thanks to Lance Reis for use of the header image (alt text: a close-up of a man’s dirty face); cropped from the original that can be seen here.

Thanks for reading 🙂

N. P. Ryan

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