Qualtagh (or Quaaltagh) comes from Manx (or Max Gaelic), an ancient Celtic language that is spoken on the Isle of Man. Literally translated the word means “someone who meets or is met.” It is derived from the root word, quaail, meaning “to meet.” The word has three meanings: 1. the custom of going from door to door at Christmas or on New Year’s day, making a request for food or other gifts in the form of a song. The custom is also known as “first footing” and in Scotland, “first fit.” 2. The first person to enter a house on New Year’s Day; the caller is also referred to as a “first footer.” 3. The first person one meets after leaving home, particularly on a special occasion.
The word is pronounced “KWAL tek” or “KWAL tex.” Manx, known for its very idiosyncratic spellings, is considered an extinct first language. As of 2015, it is spoken by only 1,800 out of 80,398 residents of the Isle of Man, a self-governing British Crown dependency located in the Irish Sea, midway between Ireland and Great Britain.
In Northern English and Scottish folklore, the first foot or qualtagh brings either good or bad fortune for the coming year depending on their attributes. Although the qualtagh may be a resident of the house, he or she should not be in the house when the clock strikes midnight. Charles Kightly, author of Customs and Ceremonies of Britain, elaborates on some other requirements of the first-footer who brings good luck: “The caller should be male, preferably of dark coloring… Nor should the visitor arrive empty-handed. A piece of coal for the fire, a loaf for the table, and a glass of whisky for the head of the house are traditional gifts. The first footer enters by the front door and leaves by the back door.”
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For further reading: The Folklore of World Holidays (Second Edition) by Robert Griffin and Ann Shurgin
The Oxford Companion to the Year by Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens
Customs and Ceremonies of Britain by Charles Kightly