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New Year's Day

There is a peculiar feeling of satisfaction that comes over us with
the advent of the New Year. The Old Year, with its joys and sorrows,
its gains and disappointments, is irrevocably dead--dead without hope
of resurrection, and there is not one of us who does not hope that the
forthcoming year may be a happier one than that departed.

The following very pretty Carol for New Year's Day is taken from
Psalmes, Songs, and Sonnets, composed by William Byrd, Lond. 1611:--

O God, that guides the cheerful sun
By motions strange the year to frame,
Which now, returned whence it begun,
From Heaven extols Thy glorious Name;
This New Year's season sanctify
With double blessings of Thy store,
That graces new may multiply,
And former follies reign no more.
So shall our hearts with Heaven agree,
And both give laud and praise to Thee. Amen.

Th' old year, by course, is past and gone,
Old Adam, Lord, from us expel;
New creatures make us every one,
New life becomes the New Year well.
As new-born babes from malice keep,
New wedding garments, Christ, we crave;
That we Thy face in Heaven may see,
With Angels bright, our souls to save.
So shall our hearts with Heaven agree,
And both give laud and praise to Thee. Amen.

The Church takes no notice of the first of January as the beginning of
a New Year, but only as the Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord, and
consequently, being included in the twelve days of Christ-tide
festivity, it was only regarded as one of them, and no particular
stress was placed upon it. There were, and are, local customs peculiar
to the day, but, with the exception of some special festivity, general
good wishes for health and prosperity, and the giving of presents,
there is no extraordinary recognition of the day.

Naogeorgus says of it:--

The next to this is New Yeares day, whereon to every frende,
They costly presents in do bring, and Newe Yeares giftes do sende.
These giftes the husband gives his wife, and father eke the childe,
And maister on his men bestowes the like, with favour milde.
And good beginning of the yeare, they wishe and wishe againe,
According to the auncient guise of heathen people vaine.
These eight dayes no man doth require his dettes of any man,
Their tables do they furnish out with all the meate they can:
With Marchpaynes, Tartes, and Custards great, they drink with
staring eyes,
They rowte and revell, feede and feast, as merry all as Pyes:
As if they should at th' entrance of this newe yeare hap to die,
Yet would they have theyr bellyes full, and auncient friendes allie.

The custom of mutual gifts on this day still obtains in England, but
is in great force in France. Here it was general among all classes,
and many are the notices of presents to Royalty, but nowadays a
present at Christmas has very greatly superseded the old custom. We
owe the term pin-money to the gift of pins at this season. They were
expensive articles, and occasionally money was given as a commutation.
Gloves were, as they are now, always an acceptable present, but to
those who were not overburdened with this world's goods an orange
stuck with cloves was deemed sufficient for a New Year's gift.

Among the many superstitious customs which used to obtain in England
was a kind of Sortes Virgilianae, or divination, as to the coming
year. Only the Bible was the medium, and the operation was termed
dipping. The ceremony usually took place before breakfast, as it was
absolutely necessary that the rite should be performed fasting. The
Bible was laid upon a table, and opened haphazard, a finger being
placed, without premeditation, upon a verse, and the future for the
coming year was dependent upon the sense of the verse pitched upon. A
correspondent in Notes and Queries (2 ser. xii. 303) writes: About
eight years ago I was staying in a little village in Oxfordshire on
the first day of the year, and happening to pass by a cottage where an
old woman lived whom I knew well, I stepped in, and wished her 'A
Happy New Year.' Instead of replying to my salutation, she stared
wildly at me, and exclaimed in a horrified tone, 'New Year's Day! and
I have never dipped.' Not having the slightest idea of her meaning, I
asked for an explanation, and gathered from her that it was customary
to dip into the Bible before twelve o'clock on New Year's Day, and
the first verse that met the eye indicated the good or bad fortune of
the inquirer through the ensuing year. My old friend added: 'Last year
I dipped, and I opened on Job, and sure enough, I have had nought but
trouble ever since.' Her consternation on receiving my good wishes was
in consequence of her having let the opportunity of dipping go by for
that year, it being past twelve o'clock.

Another singular custom which used to obtain in Cumberland and
Westmoreland is noted in a letter in the Gentleman's Magazine for
1791, vol. lxi., part ii. p. 1169: Early in the morning of the first
of January the Faex Populi assemble together, carrying stangs[86]
and baskets. Any inhabitant, stranger, or whoever joins not this
ruffian tribe in sacrificing to their favourite Saint day, if
unfortunate enough to be met by any of the band, is immediately
mounted across the stang (if a woman, she is basketed), and carried,
shoulder height, to the nearest public-house, where the payment of
sixpence immediately liberates the prisoner. No respect is paid to any
person; the cobler on that day thinks himself equal to the parson, who
generally gets mounted like the rest of his flock; whilst one of his
porters boasts and prides himself in having, but just before, got
the Squire across the pole. None, though ever so industriously
inclined, are permitted to follow their respective avocations on that

[Footnote 86: Poles. To ride the stang was a popular punishment for
husbands who behaved cruelly to their wives.]

Blount, in his Tenures of Land, etc., gives a very curious tenure by
which the Manor of Essington, Staffordshire, was held; the lord of
which manor (either by himself, deputy, or steward) oweth, and is
obliged yearly to perform, service to the lord of the Manor of Hilton,
a village about a mile distant from this manor. The Lord of Essington
is to bring a goose every New Year's day, and drive it round the fire,
at least three times, whilst Jack of Hilton is blowing the fire. This
Jack of Hilton is an image of brass, of about twelve inches high,
having a little hole at the mouth, at which, being filled with water,
and set to a strong fire, which makes it evaporate like an aeolipole,
it vents itself in a constant blast, so strongly that it is very
audible, and blows the fire fiercely.

When the Lord of Essington has done his duty, and the other things are
performed, he carries his goose into the kitchen of Hilton Hall, and
delivers it to the cook, who, having dressed it, the Lord of
Essington, or his deputy, by way of farther service, is to carry it to
the table of the lord paramount of Hilton and Essington, and receives
a dish from the Lord of Hilton's table for his own mess, and so

He also gives a curious tenure at Hutton Conyers, Yorkshire: Near
this town, which lies a few miles from Ripon, there is a large common,
called Hutton Conyers Moor.... The occupiers of messuages and cottages
within the several towns of Hutton Conyers, Melmerby, Baldersby,
Rainton, Dishforth, and Hewick have right of estray for their sheep to
certain limited boundaries on the common, and each township has a

The lord's shepherd has a pre-eminence of tending his sheep on any
part of the common, and, wherever he herds the lord's sheep, the
several other shepherds have to give way to him, and give up their
hoofing place, so long as he pleases to depasture the lord's sheep
thereon. The lord holds his court the first day in the year, and, to
entitle those several townships to such right of estray, the shepherd
of each township attends the court, and does fealty by bringing to
the court a large apple-pie and a twopenny sweet cake, except the
shepherd of Hewick, who compounds by paying sixteenpence for ale
(which is drunk as aftermentioned) and a wooden spoon; each pie is cut
in two, and divided by the bailiff, one half between the steward,
bailiff, and the tenant of a coney warren, and the other half into six
parts, and divided amongst the six shepherds of the beforementioned
six townships. In the pie brought by the shepherd of Rainton, an inner
one is made, filled with prunes. The cakes are divided in the same
manner. The bailiff of the manor provides furmety and mustard, and
delivers to each shepherd a slice of cheese and a penny roll. The
furmety, well mixed with mustard, is put into an earthen pot, and
placed in a hole in the ground in a garth belonging to the bailiff's
house, to which place the steward of the court, with the bailiff,
tenant of the warren, and six shepherds adjourn, with their respective
wooden spoons. The bailiff provides spoons for the steward, the tenant
of the warren, and himself. The steward first pays respect to the
furmety by taking a large spoonful; the bailiff has the next honour,
the tenant of the warren next, then the shepherd of Hutton Conyers,
and afterwards the other shepherds by regular turns; then each person
is served with a glass of ale (paid for by the sixteenpence brought by
the Hewick shepherd), and the health of the Lord of the Manor is
drunk; then they adjourn back to the bailiff's house, and the further
business of the court is proceeded with.

The question was asked (Notes and Queries, 2 ser. ii. 229), but
never answered, Whether any reader could give information respecting
the ancient custom in the city of Coventry of sending God Cakes on the
first day of the year? They are used by all classes, and vary in
price from a halfpenny to one pound. They are invariably made in a
triangular shape, an inch thick, and filled with a kind of mince meat.
I believe the custom is peculiar to that city, and should be glad to
know more about its origin. So general is the use of them on January
1st, that the cheaper sorts are hawked about the streets, as hot Cross
buns are on Good Friday in London.

In Nottinghamshire it is considered unlucky to take anything out of a
house on New Year's day before something has been brought in;
consequently, as early as possible in the morning, each member of the
family brings in some trifle. Near Newark this rhyme is sung:--

Take out, and take in,
Bad luck is sure to begin;
But take in and take out,
Good luck will come about.

Train, in his History of the Isle of Man (ed. 1845, vol. ii. 115),
says that on 1st January an old custom is observed, called the
quaaltagh. In almost every parish throughout the island a party of
young men go from house to house singing the following rhyme:--

Again we assemble, a merry New Year
To wish to each one of the family here,
Whether man, woman, or girl, or boy,
That long life and happiness all may enjoy;
May they of potatoes and herrings have plenty,
With butter and cheese, and each other dainty;
And may their sleep never, by night or day,
Disturbed be by even the tooth of a flea:
Until at the Quaaltagh again we appear,
To wish you, as now, all a happy New Year.

When these lines are repeated at the door, the whole party are invited
into the house to partake of the best the family can afford. On these
occasions a person of dark complexion always enters first, as a
light-haired male or female is deemed unlucky to be the first-foot, or
quaaltagh, on New Year's morning. The actors of the quaaltagh do
not assume fantastic habiliments like the Mummers of England, or the
Guisards of Scotland; nor do they, like these rude performers of the
Ancient Mysteries, appear ever to have been attended by minstrels
playing on different kinds of musical instruments.

The custom of first-footing is still in vogue in many parts of
Scotland, although a very good authority, Chambers's Book of Days
(vol. i. p. 28), says it is dying out:--

Till very few years ago in Scotland the custom of the wassail bowl,
at the passing away of the old year, might be said to be still in
comparative vigour. On the approach of twelve o'clock a hot pint
was prepared--that is, a kettle or flagon full of warm, spiced, and
sweetened ale, with an infusion of spirits. When the clock had struck
the knell of the departed year, each member of the family drank of
this mixture, 'A good health and a happy New Year, and many of them!'
to all the rest, with a general hand-shaking, and perhaps a dance
round the table, with the addition of a song to the tune of Hey
tuttie taitie--

Weel may we a' be,
Ill may we never see,
Here's to the King
And the gude companie! etc.

The elders of the family would then most probably sally out, with the
hot kettle, and bearing also a competent provision of buns and short
cakes, or bread and cheese, with the design of visiting their
neighbours, and interchanging with them the same cordial greetings. If
they met by the way another party similarly bent whom they knew, they
would stop, and give and take sips from their respective kettles.
Reaching the friends' house, they would enter with vociferous good
wishes, and soon send the kettle a-circulating. If they were the first
to enter the house since twelve o'clock, they were deemed the
first-foot; and, as such, it was most important, for luck to the
family in the coming year, that they should make their entry, not
empty-handed, but with their hands full of cakes, and bread and
cheese; of which, on the other hand, civility demanded that each
individual in the house should partake.

To such an extent did this custom prevail in Edinburgh, in the
recollection of persons still living, that, according to their
account, the principal streets were more thronged between twelve and
one in the morning than they usually were at mid-day. Much innocent
mirth prevailed, and mutual good feelings were largely promoted. An
unlucky circumstance, which took place on the 1st January of 1812,
proved the means of nearly extinguishing the custom. A small party of
reckless boys formed the design of turning the innocent festivities of
first-footing to account, for the purposes of plunder. They kept
their counsel well. No sooner had the people come abroad on the
principal thoroughfares of the Old Town, than these youths sallied out
in small bands, and commenced the business which they had undertaken.
Their previous agreement was--to look out for the white neckcloths,
such being the best mark by which they could distinguish, in the dark,
individuals likely to carry any property worthy of being taken. A
great number of gentlemen were thus spoiled of their watches and other
valuables. The least resistance was resented by the most brutal
maltreatment. A policeman and a young man of the rank of a clerk in
Leith died of the injuries they had received. An affair so singular,
so uncharacteristic of the people among whom it happened, produced a
widespread and lasting feeling of surprise. The outrage was expiated
by the execution of three of the youthful rioters on the chief scene
of their wickedness; but from that time it was observed that the old
custom of going about with the hot pint--the ancient wassail--fell

* * * * *

There was, in Scotland, a first-footing independent of the hot
pint. It was a time for some youthful friend of the family to steal
to the door, in the hope of meeting there the young maiden of his
fancy, and obtaining the privilege of a kiss, as her first-foot.
Great was the disappointment on his part, and great the joking among
the family, if, through accident or plan, some half-withered aunt or
ancient grand-dame came to receive him instead of the blooming Jenny.

In Sir T.D. Hardy's Memoirs of Lord Langdale (1852, vol. i., p. 55)
is the following extract from a letter dated 1st January 1802. Being
in Scotland, I ought to tell you of Scotch customs; and really they
have a charming one on this occasion (i.e. New Year's day). Whether
it is meant as a farewell ceremony to the old one, or an introduction
to the New Year, I can't tell; but on the 31st of December almost
everybody has a party, either to dine or sup. The company, almost
entirely consisting of young people, wait together till twelve o'clock
strikes, at which time every one begins to move, and they all fall to
work. At what? why, kissing. Each male is successively locked in pure
Platonic embrace with each female; and after this grand ceremony,
which, of course, creates infinite fun, they separate and go home.
This matter is not at all confined to these, but wherever man meets
woman it is the peculiar privilege of this hour. The common people
think it necessary to drink what they call hot pint, which consists
of strong beer, whisky, eggs, etc., a most horrid composition, as bad
or worse than that infamous mixture called fig-one,[87] which the
English people drink on Good Friday.

[Footnote 87: Or Fig-sue, which is a mixture of ale, sliced figs,
bread, and nutmeg, all boiled together, and eaten hot. This mess is
made in North Lancashire, and partaken of on Good Friday, probably by
way of mortifying the flesh.]

Pennant tells us, in his Tour in Scotland, that on New Year's day
the Highlanders burned juniper before their cattle; and Stewart, in
Popular Superstitions of the Highlanders of Scotland, says, as soon
as the last night of the year sets in, it is the signal with the
Strathdown Highlander for the suspension of his usual employment, and
he directs his attention to more agreeable callings. The men form into
bands, with tethers and axes, and, shaping their course to the juniper
bushes, they return home with mighty loads, which are arranged round
the fire to dry until morning. A certain discreet person is despatched
to the dead and living ford, to draw a pitcher of water in profound
silence, without the vessel touching the ground, lest its virtue
should be destroyed, and on his return all retire to rest.

Early on New Year's morning, the usque-cashrichd, or water from the
dead and living ford, is drunk, as a potent charm until next New
Year's day, against the spells of witchcraft, the malignity of evil
eyes, and the activity of all infernal agency. The qualified
Highlander then takes a large brush, with which he profusely asperses
the occupants of all beds, from whom it is not unusual for him to
receive ungrateful remonstrances against ablution. This ended, and the
doors and windows being thoroughly closed, and all crevices stopped,
he kindles piles of the collected juniper in the different apartments,
till the vapour collected from the burning branches condenses into
opaque clouds, and coughing, sneezing, wheezing, gasping, and other
demonstrations of suffocation ensue. The operator, aware that the more
intense the smuchdan, the more propitious the solemnity, disregards
these indications, and continues, with streaming eyes and averted
head, to increase the fumigation, until, in his own defence, he admits
the air to recover the exhausted household and himself. He then treats
the horses, cattle, and other bestial stock in the town with the same
smothering, to keep them from harm throughout the year.

When the gudewife gets up, and having ceased from coughing, has gained
sufficient strength to reach the bottle dhu, she administers its
comfort to the relief of the sufferers; laughter takes the place of
complaint, all the family get up, wash their faces, and receive the
visits of their neighbours, who arrive full of congratulations
peculiar to the day. Mu nase choil orst, My Candlemas bond upon
you, is the customary salutation, and means, in plain words, You owe
me a New Year's gift. A point of great emulation is, who shall salute
the other first, because the one who does so is entitled to a gift
from the person saluted. Breakfast, consisting of all procurable
luxuries, is then served, the neighbours not engaged are invited to
partake, and the day ends in festivity.

Of New Year's customs in Ireland a correspondent in Notes and
Queries (5 ser. iii. 7), writes: On New Year's day I observed boys
running about the suburbs at the County Down side of Belfast, carrying
little twisted wisps of straw, which they offer to persons whom they
meet, or throw into houses as New Year Offerings, and expect in return
to get any small present, such as a little money, or a piece of bread.

About Glenarm, on the coast of County Antrim, the 'wisp' is not used;
but on this day the boys go about from house to house, and are regaled
with 'bannocks' of oaten bread, buttered; these bannocks are baked
specially for the occasion, and are commonly small, thick, and round,
and with a hole through the centre. Any person who enters a house at
Glenarm on this day must either eat or drink before leaving it.

It is only natural that auguries for the weather of the year should be
drawn from that on which New Year's day falls, and not only so, but,
as at Christmas, the weather for the ensuing year was materially
influenced, according to the day in the week on which this
commencement of another year happened to fall. It is, however,
satisfactory to have persons able to tell us all about it, and thus
saith Digges, in his Prognosticacion Everlasting, of ryghte goode
Effect, Lond., 1596, 4to.

It is affirmed by some, when New Yeare's day falleth on the Sunday,
then a pleasant winter doth ensue: a naturall summer: fruite
sufficient: harvest indifferent, yet some winde and raine: many
marriages: plentie of wine and honey; death of young men and cattell:
robberies in most places: newes of prelates, of kinges; and cruell
warres in the end.

On Monday, a winter somewhat uncomfortable; summer temperate: no
plentie of fruite: many fansies and fables opened: agues shall reigne:
kings and many others shall dye: marriages shall be in most places:
and a common fall of gentlemen.

On Tuesday, a stormie winter: a wet summer: a divers harvest: corne
and fruite indifferent, yet hearbes in gardens shall not flourish:
great sicknesse of men, women, and yong children. Beasts shall hunger,
starve, and dye of the botch; many shippes, gallies, and hulkes shall
be lost; and the bloodie flixes shall kill many men; all things deare,
save corne.

On Wednesday, lo, a warme winter; in the end, snowe and frost: a
cloudie summer, plentie of fruite, corne, hay, wine, and honey: great
paine to women with childe, and death to infants: good for sheepe:
news of kinges: great warres: battell, and slaughter towards the

On Thursday, winter and summer windie; a rainie harveste: therefore
wee shall have overflowings: much fruite: plentie of honey: yet flesh
shall be deare: cattell in general shall dye: great trouble; warres,
etc.: with a licencious life of the feminine sexe.

On Friday, winter stormie: summer scant and pleasant: harvest
indifferent: little store of fruite, of wine and honey: corne deare:
many bleare eyes: youth shall dye: earthquakes are perceived in many
places: plentie of thunders, lightnings and tempestes: with a sudden
death of cattell.

On Saturday, a mean winter: summer very hot: a late harvest: good
cheape garden hearbs: much burning: plentie of hempe, flax and honey.
Old folke shall dye in most places: fevers and tercians shall grieve
many people: great muttering of warres: murthers shall be suddenly
committed in many places for light matters.

In Scotland the first Monday is kept as a great holiday among servants
and children, to whom Handsel Monday, as it is called, is analogous
to Boxing Day in England, when all expect some little present in
token of affection, or in recognition of services rendered during the
past year. In the rural districts Auld Handsel Monday--that is, the
first Monday after the twelfth of the month--is kept in preference. It
is also a day for hiring servants for another year, and at
farm-houses, after a good substantial breakfast, the remainder of the
day is spent as a holiday.

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