New Year’s Eve and welcome to 2014.
The countdown to the New Year has already started in Australia.
So I thought I’d share a little bit about New Year’s Eve from my book, History of Christmases Past.
New year’s Eve was viewed as a chance to end the old year merrily and begin the new one well and in friendship. Young women of the village carried the wassail bowl from door to door and offered spiced ale in exchange for small gifts, in between singing rude congratulatory verses.
The giving of New Year gifts was customary in the English and French courts and came from the custom of giving ‘strenae’ on that day. In 747 BC, Tatius entered Rome on New Year’s Day and was gifted vervain, the herb of grace, and he declared that from then on gifts would be give on January 1st. Henry III supposedly tried to extort gifts or ‘loans’ from his nobles and Elizabeth I received coin and extravagant gifts on New Year’s Day.
In 1589, Lord North, in his Household Book, charges £40, as his New Year’s Gift to the queen, and £16 10s. given at court at New Year’s tide. It need scarcely be observed that the custom of New Year’s Gifts was prevalent among all classes, and many examples might be given of payments on account of them in the domestic records of the age.
Gloves were a popular gift but after coins were slipped inside these gifts, bribery became glove money.
In Scotland they celebrate Hogmanay and the old tradition of first footing, where the first person to set foot across the threshold after midnight on December 31st was said to affect the family’s fortunes. The first footer brought gifts, traditionally a lump of coal, and when he left buy the back door he took the past year’s troubles with him.
‘New Year’s Eve was observed as a convivial and cordial meeting, as it still continues in some places, and the wassail-bowl was again brought into requisition, and occasionally carried about by young women from door to door with an appropriate song.
‘The Wassail Wassail all over the town,
Our toast it is white, our ale it is brown:
Our bowl it is made of a maplin tree,
We be good fellows all;
I drink to thee.’
South of Ireland – cake being thrown against the outside door of each house by the head of the family, to keep out hunger during the ensuing year. The New Year is rung, in, and bands of music parade the towns as on Christmas morn, and in some places (though getting nearly obsolete) the bellman goes round with a copy of verses wishing a merry Christmas and happy New Year.
At present (1833) the commencement of the year is treated as a feast, and frequently as a sort of meeting or re-union among families, where they can conveniently join at the same table; and in many cases the servants and laborers are entertained by their employers, and many of the Christmas sports repeated. Stewart mentions a singular custom in vogue in Strathdown, and its neighborhood, formerly common to all the Highlands on this day.
Piles of juniper wood are collected and set on ﬁre, each door, window, and crevice being ﬁrst closely stopped up; the fumes and smoke of the burning wood cause to the inmates violent sneezing, coughing, &c. till they are nearly exhausted.’
‘In France, though New-Year’s is generally observed rather than Christmas for the distribution of presents, it is the Jésus bambin who comes with a convoy of angels loaded with books and toys with which to fill the expectant little shoes, that tiny hands have so carefully arranged in the fire-place.
In Alsace he is represented by a young maiden dressed in white, with hair of lamb’s wool hanging down upon her shoulders, and her face whitened with flour, while on her head she wears a crown of gilt paper set round with burning tapers.
In one hand she holds a silver bell, in the other a basket full of sweetmeats. She is the messenger of joy to all children, but that joy is usually changed into terror on the appearance of Hans Trapp, the Alsacian Ruprecht.
The bugbear, on entering, demands in a hoarse voice which of the children have not been obedient, walking up toward them in a threatening manner, while they, trembling and crying, seek to hide themselves as best they may from the impending storm.
But the Christ-child intercedes for them, and, upon their promising to become better in the future, leads them up to the brilliantly illuminated Christmas-tree loaded with presents, which soon make them oblivious of the frightful Hans Trapp.’
1828 A New Year’s Eve and other poems by Bernard Barton
Are thy locks white with many long-past years ?
One more is dawning which thy last may be ;
Art thou in middle age, by worldly fears
And hopes surrounded ? set thy spirit free,
More awful fears, more glorious hopes to see.
Art thou in blooming youth ?
thyself engage To serve and honour Him,
who unto thee Would be a guide and guard through life’s first stage,
Wisdom in manhood’s strength, and greenness in old age !
Much of this information, plus a lot more about Christmas traditions is available in my non-fiction book
History of Christmases Past by Suzi Love