The Magic of Jabez and Walter, or the Importance of First Footing

 Welsh cakes are a delicious, not-too-sweet treat that are wonderful with hot tea or coffee.

Welsh cakes are a delicious, not-too-sweet treat that are wonderful with hot tea or coffee.

Our sister restaurant, the Holly Hill Inn in Midway, has a tradition of giving New Year’s Eve diners a take-away sweet or little something for New Year’s Day breakfast, and Honeywood is adopting the tradition. Both restaurants will be giving departing guests packets of delicious Welsh cakes, which was inspired by our development chef, Sara Gibbs, and a long-ago New Year’s Eve tradition involving her family:

Sara’s great-great-grandfather George Lyons immigrated to the United States from Wales, and became a surveyor for a mining company in Barton in Western Maryland. Many of the miners in that area, mainly Barton and Lonaconing, came from Scotland and Wales and lived side by side in small communities, where their customs comingled, including a tradition called first footing.

For New Year’s Eve, a house planned its first footing, or First-Foot, so that a tall, dark and handsome man bearing cakes or coins would be the first after midnight to walk through the door. Such a man planting a “first foot” in the house meant good luck for the year. There are several iterations of this tradition, depending on geography, or lore. But this is what Sara recalled from her family tradition.

Sara’s great-grandfather’s brother, Jabez (pronounced Jah-bez in Western Maryland, unlike the town “Jay-bez” down around Lake Cumberland in Southern Kentucky), was a tall, dark-haired and very handsome man, and therefore much in demand for New Year’s. He would be hired out to walk through neighbors’ doors to provide the luck needed for the year. Sara’s grandfather Walter Lyons (see picture) also was called to fulfill the role.

 From left, Mabel Davis Lyons, daughter Mabel (Sara Gibbs' mother), and husband Walter Lyons. Because of his tall, dark and handsome good looks, Walter was invited to perform first footing duties.

From left, Mabel Davis Lyons, daughter Mabel (Sara Gibbs' mother), and husband Walter Lyons. Because of his tall, dark and handsome good looks, Walter was invited to perform first footing duties.

Here is an excerpt from a 2005 column on first footing in the Keyser, W.Va., newspaper written by Jabez’s great-granddaughter, Barbara Murphy:

Shortly before midnight on New Year’s Eve everyone went home so that they would be inside before the New Year began.  Only tall dark-haired men with money in their pockets were allowed to stay out past midnight.  These lucky men were encouraged to enter every house in town where they were wined and dined with tables laden with pork and sauerkraut and enough alcoholic beverages to celebrate.  Once the tall dark-haired man entered your house you could then go to other houses to celebrate "First Foot Night.” The first tall dark-haired handsome man to enter your home would have a lump of coal in his pocket or money and would place the coal in the fire for prosperity thru the year. 

Because we will need the help of the tall, dark and handsome men on our staff, instead we will send along the Welsh cakes, another tradition from Sara’s family, for your New Year’s luck. “My mother's father did not teach her anything about the Welsh pastries, but she fell in love with them when she was traveling,” Sara said. “We had them often and enjoyed them with tea or coffee. They make nice breakfast pastries, not too sweet or heavy, flavored with nutmeg and laced with currants.”

An aside from Sara: Her nephew's wife said she was reading the new Nora Roberts book, Year One, and there is an important scene involving First Footing early in the book! 

We wish you the best of luck and happiness in the New Year!

Sources: Sara Gibbs; journal by Mabel Lyons Thompson; Encyclopaedia Britannica; Historic UK; Mineral Daily News Tribune, Keyser, W.Va.