Thursday, 5 January 2012

Janus...the coal bearer…or the key? And does it really matter which?

Who was Janus? What does he have to do with coal? And what’s this key all about?

Well, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, they’re all associated with opening doors and heralding in the future year. Yet however many faces Janus might have (bearded or shaven), with or without coal, and maybe brandishing a key in his right hand, I’m ready for those new beginnings. So here’s a hearty welcome to my first blog of the New Year!

Growing up in Scotland ‘first footing’ with a lump of coal was a well practised custom. The Old Year would be let out through the back door and the New Year let in through the front door at the chimes of midnight. (If you only had one door you ad-libbed on that one!) If the first person to pass over the threshold after midnight was a dark haired male bringing coal or whisky, for luck in the New Year, it was deemed a good omen. But in reality the darkest haired individual in the vicinity was welcomed- even when it was a child.

As the darkest haired person in my neighbourhood my New Year as an eight thro’ thirteen year old was a blur. Immediately after the ‘bells’ (midnight and into the brand new year) my family would raise their glasses in a toast first to the New Year, and secondly to my mother since January first was also her birthday. I’d drink my tiny little tot of ginger wine (all I was allowed since my aunt’s home made was particularly potent!), gobble down a piece of shortbread and then would be up, and literally running, by perhaps two or three minutes after midnight to chap excitedly on the door of our nearest neighbour to bid them Happy New Year.

Growing up in Glasgow, Scotland, in the late 1950s, this meant that as soon as I went into the first neighbouring house and wished them Happy New Year the man/ men in that house could then go out and ‘first foot’ at my house. (Usually the women of the house waited in for a while to dispense the drinks and food to new arrivals.)

After a quick drink and maybe a slice of dumpling, or fruit cake, or another piece of shortbread I’d move on the next house-thus releasing another adult male. And onto the next house and so on. Yes, it was a chain of sorts.

By half past midnight I’d probably been in around 6 or 7 houses and was so full of drinks and sweet foods that I was reeling. Just as well that the neighbours NEVER gave any of their ginger wine! And, of course, the fact that I lived in a tenement apartment block of 8 houses accessed by one central stairway meant I actually did not travel very far, and usually no more than twenty yards, or so, from my own ‘close’.

When I was at the youngest age phase way back then I was always amazed that by the time I returned to my own house it was jam-packed with neighbours already partying merrily. It helped that my mother was the best cake and cookie maker in the area and her tray bakes were devoured pretty quickly. It was a time of sharing too, though, for although the party most often ended up in my house all the neighbours would contribute by adding sandwiches and other foods and drinks to our supply.

A Guid New Year was had by all, and lots of singing and dancing of traditional Scottish and more modern songs (of the time) went on into the wee sma’ hours. Whether the singing was unaccompanied, or whether there was a vinyl record (I know I’m that old!!) to hand, an impromptu sort of Karaoke went on with everybody joining in- though if it was someone’s ‘party piece’ they had first shot at it BEFORE it became a communal sing-together.

That explains the coal but what about Janus if you don’t already know?

Janus was the Roman god of beginnings and endings, and of gates and doors. With two heads he was able to look both ways, and was considered the guardian of peace when the door to his shrine in Rome was closed. If neighbouring cities were informed of open doors they knew Rome was at war, and Janus could intercede through those open doors.

He also represented transitions-for example changes in the aging processes from childhood to adulthood, or the opposites of country and city life. He was worshipped at births and weddings, clearly new starts in the life cycles of those individuals. At harvest he was given due deference as the end of the growing season gave way to the rest of winter.

The two faced/headed Janus was depicted on many Roman coins, the god being associated with money. (Of course, the two-faced Janus is also associated with duplicity…but we’ll skirt over that one!)

Now… someone is bound to say… but what about that sneaky four faced Janus?

A temple to Janus was also built with four portals where he could look to all four quarters. A very clever idea for detecting enemies coming at you from all directions so BEWARE of any four-faced Janus for he’s likely to corner you just a bit too much!

The image I like best about Janus is the two-faced god, bearded or not, holding a key in his right hand.

What’s his key for?

You may care to disagree but I’m happy with the interpretation that it opens the door to my future year…and maybe even beyond. I believe I can hold that key in my hand just like Janus. New openings and new beginnings are a fabulous concept. As a writer how can I not get excited about new openings, new chapters, and new places to venture into?

Yep! I’m also going to aim to open new doors – new places for my work to feature, new hosts to meet in blogs, and welcome new guests to mine. So how about I get to work and crack how to use properly and all those other places I’ve joined but don’t have a clue how to use effectively?

Bye, bye… and my best wishes for A Guid New Year to you too!

What do you think about that key? Please take a moment to share with me what it represents for you.


  1. Happy New Year, Nancy!!!

    I completely support your interpretation of the meaning of the key - opening new doors for new opportunities in the coming year. Where does one find such a key?

    Your childhood memories of being the "dark-headed" person are priceless. It sounds like you were a very close community, which is a wonderful place for a child to grow up. Do you still celebrate the same way now?

  2. A Guid New Year to you, Nancy :)

    As a daughter of Scottish parents, I grew up with first-footing and the lore of good-luck/bad luck dependent on visitors after the midnight hour. My brother, dark-haired, would always do the honors so my mom could rest easy! Let me tell you, first-footing in northern Saskatchewan was a solitary event! But we managed.

    Best wishes for 2012 - looks like you have a good plan for moving forward!

  3. Happy New Year to you both. It's good to talk to you again.


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