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First footers make visits on new year's day to impart luck, prosperity

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Monday, Jan. 2, 2012

The towering, barrel-chested man, who sports a neatly trimmed beard and black ponytail, had an important mission: Gaelic tradition holds that the new year will be filled with good fortune and prosperity if the first person across your threshold after midnight is a tall, dark-haired male. On Sunday morning, Hykes, 39, who lives in Washington Township, just outside of Apollo, was that man, making his debut in the tradition known in Scotland and England as "first footing."

"I have to remember to put my right foot over the threshold first," Hykes said, reciting his duties as he picked up a tiny package of shortbread, a lump of coal and a shot of whiskey to carry into Paul Thompson's Delmont home. The coal symbolizes warmth, the shortbread, food or plenty, and the whiskey — well, some call it the "water of life."

Thompson, 69, a native of Scotland, came here in 1970. He is legendary along Surrvey Drive for his late night bagpipping and first footing on New Year's Day.

This year he opted to play the pipes — a sad lament first to usher out the old year, then a brisk tune to welcome the new — but passed the duty of first footing on to Hykes. Initiating a new first footer is a matter of preserving tradition, said Thompson, president of the St. Andrew's Society of Pittsburgh, a Scottish-heritage organization.

"In Scotland and throughout Britain, it's almost like carol singing. We'd go out in a group and a tall, dark man would knock on the door," Thompson recalled of the New Year's celebrations known as Hogmanay.

It's bad luck to have a female cross the threshold first. And Thompson said Gaelic tradition dictates that a first footer must have dark hair. Redheads and blonds are considered bad luck, likely reminders of the Vikings who raided his homeland centuries ago, Thompson said.

"I definitely fit it," Hykes said, grinning.

Thompson's wife, Sarah Jean, who greeted Hykes warmly, said it wouldn't be New Year's without a first footer.

While Hykes and Thompson can trace their tradition back to Scotland, Edward Poole, 60, of Uptown traces his New Year's Day visits back to his late mother.

Brazelia Poole came to Pittsburgh from South Carolina and brought the tradition with her. Her youngest son isn't sure where she picked up on it.

"My mom had a lot of traditions. A lot of it is family-oriented, to keep the family together. She always told me I had to go out visiting because you had to have a man as your first visitor of the year," he said.

Poole remembers going to church with his mother's extended family every New Year's Eve. After church, they'd gather at an aunt's house to celebrate the new year.

"When we got to the house, all of the women would step aside and my uncle would go in the door first, and he'd say 'God bless this house in the coming year,' and then the women would come in," Poole said. "I do that now."

Poole said he's never heard the term first footer, but he likes it.

"My friends always thought it was kind of corny, and I don't know too many people who do it, but Mama always told me I had to do it," Poole said.

So, early yesterday, he ventured out into the gray, rainy morning to visit his older sister, Frances, in Oak Hill, then headed to East Liberty to be his niece's first visitor.

"Frances is always first. It's tradition," he said. "It's kept the family close. Hopefully, my son and grandchildren will understand."

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