For starters no one is even really sure if 'Koot Karlin' is the correct spelling. Such family traditions are rarely written down. And playing with the spelling yielded some interesting results. 'Carlin' is actually a common surname and there was a Mr. Carlin of Hillsborough who would visit the family in the early 1900s. If the tradition refers to him the addition of 'Koot' (or coot) speaks perhaps to his personality as the word means 'a foolish or eccentric person, typically an old man'.
Next, since my family is Scotch-Irish, I decided to look at Irish traditions to see if there were any similar customs. I found that the Irish had three relevant traditions.
The fist is the New Year's Eve house cleaning which held that the state the household entered the New Year reflected how well the year would go for that household. Luckily, we only have to clean the dishes.
The second was a meal that would be eaten on New Year's Eve in memory of the dead. A place setting would be set out for them if they decided to stop by. This is reflected (and reversed) in our own tradition of leaving out a plate.
The third was the importance placed on who the first guest the household received on New Year's Day was. If it was a tall, handsome man the household would have good luck.
Now, when I mentioned 'New Year's' above I didn't specifically mean the date we currently celebrate. The Irish celebrated Samhain which was the first of four dates that marked the changing of the seasons. It has been compared to New Year's celebrations but was in fact celebrated in late October/early November and marked the start of Winter.
For a while this is all the information I was able to turn up. However, one day while chatting with a coworker he mentioned an Irish mythological hero named Cú Chulainn. While the two names don't look similar they sound much alike. The primary difference being harder consonant sounds in the later name. Indeed, I got my coworker to say the name a few times to make sure I wasn't hearing things. Cú Chulainn has many legends with key events in his life occurring on Samhain.
More intriguingly is how Cú Chulainn ties the various clues I've found together. His legend is part of what is called Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology and focuses on Northern Ireland (although he appears in Scottish myths as well). My family, being Scotch-Irish, most likely came from Northern Ireland. Cú Chulainn was described as being young, honourable, and heroic; the perfect 'first guest' for New Year's Day.
For all this research the origins of this family tradition are still uncertain and will likely remain so. But still we will be ready for Koot Karlin should he come.
Written by: James Wilson