John Mitchinson traces the significance of New Year and where the customs associated with it originated.
It has become fashionable to disparage New Year – the evening revelry so often collapses under the weight of Dionysian expectation and the day itself marks the beginning of abstinence and resolutions we know we won’t keep.
This is a shame because, as far as the calendar of traditional festivals go, New Year is one of very few that can properly be called ancient.
The Romans celebrated it as Kalendae (from where we get the word ‘calendar’) and marked it out from their other feasts by the giving and receiving of gifts of figs, honey, coins and pastry (who would have thought that my sons’ visit to Greggs on 2 January to buy one another the new Vegan Steakbake was re-enacting a 2,000-year-old ritual?)
There is also evidence of a long tradition of celebrating the midwinter solstice in Anglo-Saxon and Viking cultures and even some indications that it was important to the ancient British peoples. There’s a common sense aspect to this – the moment the sun begins to renew its power feels like the right time to start a New Year.
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Interestingly, when a royal decree in 1155 moved the start of the official New Year to 25 March (the feast of the Annunciation) to match the Roman calendar, the celebrations stubbornly refused to move. In fact, the only thing that survives of this move is the start of the new tax year in April.
Until the 19th Century, it was New Year rather than Christmas which was associated with gift giving. The English royals, in particular, entered into the spirit with gusto. Henry VI went full bling: lists of his gifts include gold tablets studded with jewels, a ruby set in a gold ring and a gold crucifix set with sapphires and pearls. In a more self-regarding move, Henry VII ordained that he should receive his New Year gifts after he’d put on his shoes and that this be accompanied by a fanfare of trumpets. Even the middle classes got in on the act. In 1669, Samuel Pepys reports giving his long-suffering wife, a nice walnut cabinet.
North of the border, New Year was an even bigger deal.
‘Hogmanay’ may be of uncertain etymology but everyone knows what it means. It remains a more important festival in Scotland, perhaps because the winters were colder and darker and the need for a midwinter feast was even greater, but also because the reformed Kirk banned Christmas. The Commonwealth did the same in England in 1649 but this lasted for less than a decade.
In Scotland, Christmas Day only became a public holiday in 1958. As the historian Ronald Hutton has said, the Kirk had simply caused the Scots “to abandon the Christian festival of the Nativity for a semi-secular one to honour the New Year, much closer to the pattern of the pagan Vikings and Saxons”. Thus freed up, the party season in Scotland also includes the period before New Year. In the north-east Highlands, they even had a name for it, “Yeel”, which seems a much better option than our rather twee “Twixmas” or slightly too anatomical “Merryneum”.
Most ‘ancient’ traditions are hard to trace back much before the 18th Century, however, it’s hard not to feel that something very old is being enacted in the New Year first-foot rituals in which a person is invited over the threshold on the stroke of new year carrying money, food or fuel (or sometimes all three). The strict rules about whether this is a man or a woman, dark or fair, change from region to region – in Huddersfield, a ginger first-foot is considered especially lucky.
As well as bringing New Year gifts, there is a long tradition of extorting them. In the Hebrides, the refusal of gifts of food or drink would lead to a cairn of stones being piled up outside your door and a – literally – scatological invocation of the ‘scath of the plaintive buzzard’, the ‘sneaking fox’ and the ‘foul polecat’ to rain upon you. This echoes the English tradition on Plough Monday (the first Monday after Twelfth Night) where, if the request for bread, cheese or ale from a well-off household was ignored, the gaudily-decorated plough boys would set to work and leave the front garden as ‘brown, barren and ridgy as a newly ploughed field’.
The gifts and the threats may have faded, but the need for a celebration in the gloom remains. Almost all the old New Year blessings wish you “a pocket full of money and a cellar full of beer and a good fat pig to serve you all the year”.
Even for those of you now well in to Dry January or Veganuary, the sentiment at least remains valid.
John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s QI.