image: title
Project Britain
Folklore Calendar
stories, sayings, customs
Jan | Feb | Mar | Apr | May | Jun | Jul | Aug | Sept | Oct | Nov | Dec
A month by month of forgotten legends and pastimes from Britain's folk history
image: back to main page

Facts about January
Customs and Traditions

Gemstone: Garnet
Flower: Carnation


The beginning of the new year and the time to make New Year resolutions.

January was established as the first the first month of the year by the Roman Calendar. It was named after the god Janus (Latin word for door). Janus has two faces which allowed him to look both backwards into the old year and forwards into the new one at the same time. He was the 'spirit of the opening'.

In the very earliest Roman calendars there were no months of January or February at all. The ancient Roman calendar had only ten months and the new year started the year on 1 March. To the Romans, ten was a very important number. Even when January (or Januarius as the Romans called it) was added, the New Year continued to start in March. It remained so in England and her colonies until about 200 years ago.

The Anglo-Saxons called the first month Wolf monath because wolves came into the villages in winter in search of food.

New Year's Eve customs and traditions

01All year roundNew Year's Day

New Year's Day is the first day of the year, in the Gregorian calendar. In modern times, it is the 1st January. It is a time for looking forward and wishing for a good year ahead. Big BenIt is also a holiday.

People welcome in the New Year on the night before. This is called New Year's Eve. In Scotland, people celebrate with a lively festival called Hogmanay. All over Britain there are parties, fireworks, singing and dancing, to ring out the old year and ring in the new. As the clock - Big Ben - strikes midnight, people link arms and sing a song called Auld Lang Syne. It reminds them of old and new friends.

The Door Custom

In the old days, the New Year started with a custom called 'first footing', which was suppose to bring good luck to people for the coming year. As soon as midnight had passed and January 1st had started, people used to wait behind their doors for a dark haired person to arrive. The visitor carried a piece of coal, some bread, some money and some greenery. These were all for good luck - the coal to make sure that the house would always be warm, the bread to make sure everyone in the house would have enough food to eat, money so that they would have enough money, and the greenery to make sure that they had a long life.

The visitor would then take a pan of dust or ashes out of the house with him, thus signifying the departure of the old year.

01All year roundNew Year Superstition

The 1st of January was a highly significant day in medieval superstitions regarding prosperity, or lack of it, in the year ahead. A flat cake was put on one of the horns of a cow in every farmyard. The farmer and his workers would then sing a song and dance around the cow until the cake was thrown to the ground. If it fell in front of the cow that signified good luck; to fall behind indicated the opposite.

02All year roundUnluckiest Day of the Year

It was an old Saxon belief that 2nd January was one of the unluckiest days of the whole year. Those unfortunate enough to be born on this day could expect to dies an unpleasant death.

01All year roundColdest Month and day of the Year

January regularly produces frost, ice and snow and is the chilliest month of the year in Britain.


St Hilary's feast day on 13th January has gained the reputation of being the coldest day of the year due to past cold events starting on or around this date.

One of the most severe winters in history began around 13 January in 1205, when the Thames in London froze over and ale and wine turned to solid ice and were sold by weight.

"So began a frost which continued till the two and twentieth day of March, so that the ground could not be tilled; whereof it came to pass that, in summer following a quarter of wheat was sold for a mark of silver in many places of England, which for the more part in the days of King Henry the Second was sold for twelve pence; a quarter of beans or peas for half a mark; a quarter of oats for thirty pence, that were wont to be sold for fourpence. Also the money was so sore clipped that there was no remedy but to have it renewed."—Stowe's Chronicle

In 1086, a great frost also started spreading over the country on St Hilary's Day.

Frost on a car
Frost (ice) on cars is common in December and January

All year roundRiver Thames Frost Fairs

The worst cold spells in Britain occurred between 1550 and 1750. The climate during this time was known as the Little Ice Age, when winters were so cold that the Thames froze over each year. It was not uncommon for the freeze to last over three months, as in the case of the winters of 1683 - 1684 and 1715 - 1716.

The first recorded Frost Fair was held on the frozen river Thames in London in 1608. It had tents, sideshows, food stalls and even included ice bowling!

The Thames had frozen over several times before 1608. In the 16th century, Henry VIII is said to have traveled all the way from central London to Greenwich by sleigh along the river during the winter of 1536 and Elizabeth I took walks on the ice during the winter of 1564.

The last Frost Fair was held in the winter of 1814. It began on February 1, and lasted just four days. An elephant was led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge.

20All year roundSt Agnes's Eve 20 January

This was the day on which girls and unmarried women who wished to dream of their future husbands would perform certain rituals before going to bed. These included transferring pins one by one from a pincushion to their sleeve whilst reciting the Lord's Prayer, or abstaining from food and drink all day, walking backwards up the stairs to bed, and eating a portion of dumb cake ( previously prepared with a group of friends in total silence and often containing an unpleasantly large portion of salt) before lying down to sleep.

St Agnes's Eve is a title of one of Keat's poems.

All year roundCustoms of the Year's First New Moon

It is said that if you look through a silk handkerchief at the new moon, which has never been washed, the number of moons you see will be the number of years which will pass until you're married. But it is unlucky to see the new moon through a window.

To dream of your future husband, it is said that at the first appearance of the first new moon of the year you should go out and stand over the spars of a gate or stile and look at the moon saying:

All hail to thee moon, all hail to thee,
I prythee, good moon, reveal to me,
This night who my husband shall be.

All year roundFestivals and Traditions

Wassailing has been associated with Christmas and New Year as far back as the 1400s. It was a way of passing on good wishes among family and friends.

05Twelfth Night

Evening before Epiphany. Twelfth Night marks the end of the medieval Christmas festivities and the end of Twelfthtide (the 12-day season after Christmas ending with Epiphany). Also called Twelfth Day Eve.

06 Epiphany or Twelfth Day

Also known as Old Christmas Day and Twelfthtide. On the twelfth day after Christmas, Christians celebrate the visit of the Magi or wise men to the baby Jesus.

date St Distaff's Day

This was the day on which women had to return to work with the distaff (another name for a spindle) after the Christmas holiday.

datePlough Monday

The day on which work started again after Twelfth Night was known to countryfolk as Plough Monday: the day on which labourers had to return to the fields. The day was also nicknamed St Distaff's Day: the day on which women had to return to work with the distaff (another name for a spindle) after the Christmas holiday.

date Wassailing

People went from door to door, rather like carol singers at Christmas times, but at New Year they were called 'wassailers'.

date - Burns Night

The people of Scotland honour their greatest poet, Robert Burns. He was born on 25th January approximately 250 years ago (1759) and wrote his first song when he was sixteen. A traditional Scottish meal is neaps (swede), tatties (potato) and haggis washed down with whisky.

Unusual Customs Calendar

All year round Anniversaries

1st - The London Credit Exchange Company issued the first traveler’s checks in 1772.

1st - The BBc began broadcasting its first programmes in 1927.

1st - Traffic policemen were introduced in Great Britain in 1931.

2nd - On this date in 1770, a huge Christmas pie was baked for holiday consumption in London. according to the Newcastle Chronicle, it was made of "two bushels of flour, twenty pounds of butter, four geese, two turkeys, two rabbits, for wild ducks, two woodcocks, six snipes, four partridges, two neats' tongues, two curlews, seven blackbirds, and six pigeons.. It was nearly nine feet in circumference at bottom, weigh[ed] about twelve stone."

4th - Louis Braille was born in 1809. He was three years old when an accident caused him to lose his sight.

9th - Income Tax was first introduced, at two shillings in the pound.

10th - The London Underground began operating in 1863.

11th - The first televised weather broadcast featuring a presenter on screen was transmitted from the BBC's Lime Grove Studios in 1954

11th - Charing Cross Station, London, opened in 1864

14th - Motorists were required by law to wear seat belts in 1986

17th - Robert Scott and his party reached the South Pole in 1912

18th - A.A. Milne born in 1882. English author of Winnie the Pooh stories.

21st The BBC in London made its first world broadcast in 1930

25th - Robert Burns was born 1759

26th - Australia Day

27th - Mozart born in 1756 in Austria.
One of the world's greatest music composers.

28th - On the evening of this day in 1807 London's Pall Mall became the first street in the world to be lit by gas lights

29th - The Victoria Cross originated from this date in 1856. The medals were made from the metals of guns captured in the Crimea.

All year round

Jan | Feb | Mar | Apr | May | Jun | Jul | Aug | Sept | Oct | Nov | Dec


back to the top

email© Copyright - please read
All the materials on these pages are free for homework and classroom use only. You may not redistribute, sell or place the content of this page on any other website or blog without written permission from the Mandy Barrow.

Facts and information about LondonBritish Royal FamilyVirtual Tour of the Thames

Special facts and information about each month of the yearInformation on Britain and the UK for Kids of all agesBritish History

© Copyright Mandy Barrow 2013

Mandy is the creator of the Woodlands Resources section of the Woodlands Junior website. 
The two websites and are the new homes for the Woodlands Resources.

Mandy left Woodlands in 2003 to work in Kent schools as an ICT Consulatant. 
She now teaches computers at The Granville School and St. John's Primary School in Sevenoaks Kent.

Follow Mandy on Twitter

Woodlands Junior Homework Help new website