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New Year's Eve--wassail

New Year's eve is variously kept--by some in harmless mirth, by others
in religious exercises. Many churches in England have late services,
which close at midnight with a carol or appropriate hymn, and this
custom is especially held by the Wesleyan Methodists in their Watch
Night, when they pray, etc., till about five minutes to twelve, when
there is a dead silence, supposed to be spent in introspection, which
lasts until the clock strikes, and then they burst forth with a hymn
of praise and joy.

The wassail bowl used to hold as high a position as at Christmas eve,
and in Lyson's time it was customary in Gloucestershire for a merry
party to go from house to house carrying a large bowl, decked with
garlands and ribbons, singing the following wassail song:--

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.

Here's to our horse, and to his right ear,
God send our maister a happy New Year;
A happy New Year as e'er he did see--
With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.

Here's to our mare, and to her right eye,
God send our mistress a good Christmas pye:
A good Christmas pye as e'er I did see--
With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.

Here's to Fill-pail (cow) and to her long tail,
God send our measter us never may fail
Of a cup of good beer, I pray you draw near,
And our jolly wassail it's then you shall hear.

Be here any maids? I suppose there be some,
Sure they will not let young men stand on the cold stone
Sing hey, O maids, come trole back the pin,
And the fairest maid in the house let us all in.

Come, butler, come bring us a bowl of the best:
I hope your soul in heaven will rest:
But, if you do bring us a bowl of the small,
Then down fall butler, bowl, and all.

Until recently, a similar custom obtained in Nottinghamshire; but, in
that case, the young women of the village, dressed in their best,
carried round a decorated bowl filled with ale, roasted apples, and
toast, seasoned with nutmeg and sugar, the regulation wassail
compound. This they offered to the inmates of the house they called
at, whilst they sang the following, amongst other verses:--

Good master, at your door,
Our wassail we begin;
We are all maidens poor,
So we pray you let us in,
And drink our wassail.
All hail, wassail!
Wassail! wassail!
And drink our wassail.

In Derbyshire, on this night, a cold posset used to be prepared, made
of milk, ale, eggs, currants, and spices, and in it is placed the
hostess's wedding ring. Each of the party takes out a ladleful, and in
so doing tries to fish out the ring, believing that whoever shall be
fortunate enough to get it will be married before the year is out. It
was also customary in some districts to throw open all the doors of
the house just before midnight, and, waiting for the advent of the New
Year, to greet him as he approaches with cries of Welcome!

At Muncaster, in Cumberland, on this night the children used to go
from house to house singing a song, in which they crave the bounty
they were wont to have in old King Edward's time; but what that was
is not known.

It was a custom at Merton College, Oxford, according to Pointer
(Oxoniensis Academia, ed. 1749, p. 24), on the last night in the
year, called Scrutiny Night, for the College servants, all in a body,
to make their appearance in the Hall, before the Warden and Fellows
(after supper), and there to deliver up their keys, so that if they
have committed any great crime during the year their keys are taken
away, and they consequently lose their places, or they have them
delivered to them afresh.

On this night a curious custom obtained at Bradford, in Yorkshire,
where a party of men and women, with blackened faces, and
fantastically attired, used to enter houses with besoms, and sweep
out the Old Year.

Although Christmas is kept in Scotland, there is more festivity at the
New Year, and perhaps one of the most singular customs is that which
was told by a gentleman to Dr. Johnson during his tour in the
Hebrides. On New Year's eve, in the hall or castle of the Laird, where
at festal seasons there may be supposed to be a very numerous company,
one man dresses himself in a cow's hide, upon which the others beat
with sticks. He runs, with all this noise, round the house, which all
the company quit in a counterfeited fright, and the door is then shut.
On New Year's eve there is no great pleasure to be had out of doors in
the Hebrides. They are sure soon to recover sufficiently from their
terror to solicit for readmission, which is not to be obtained but by
repeating a verse, with which those who are knowing and provident are

In the Orkney Islands it was formerly the custom for bands of people
to assemble and pay a round of visits, singing a song which began--

This night it is guid New'r E'en's night,
We're a' here Queen Mary's men:
And we're come here to crave our right,
And that's before our Lady!

In the county of Fife this night was called Singen E'en, probably
from the custom of singing carols then. This day is popularly known
in Scotland as Hogmany, and the following is a fragment of a
Yorkshire Hagmena song:--

To-night it is the New Year's night, to-morrow is the day,
And we are come for our right and for our ray,
As we used to do in Old King Henry's day:
Sing, fellows! sing, Hagman-ha!

If you go to the bacon flick, cut me a good bit;
Cut, cut and low, beware of your maw.
Cut, cut and round, beware of your thumb,
That me and my merry men may have some:
Sing, fellows! sing, Hag-man-ha!

If you go to the black ark (chest), bring me ten marks;
Ten marks, ten pound, throw it down upon the ground,
That me and my merry men may have some:
Sing, fellows! sing, Hog-man-ha!

The meaning of this word Hogmany is not clear, and has been a source
of dispute among Scottish antiquaries; but two suggestions of its
derivation are probable. One is that it comes from Au qui menez (To
the mistleto go), which mummers formerly cried in France at Christmas;
and the other is that it is derived from Au gueux menez, i.e.
bring the beggars--which would be suitable for charitable purposes at
such a time. In some remote parts of Scotland the poor children robe
themselves in a sheet, which is so arranged as to make a large pocket
in front, and going about in little bands, they call at houses for
their Hogmany, which is given them in the shape of some oat cake, and
sometimes cheese, the cakes being prepared some days beforehand, in
order to meet the demand. On arriving at a house they cry Hogmany,
or sing some rough verse, like--

Give us of your white bread, and none of your grey!

In Notes and Queries (2 ser. ix. 38) a singular Scotch custom is
detailed. Speaking of the village of Burghead, on the southern shore
of the Moray Frith, the writer says: On the evening of the last day
of December (old style) the youth of the village assemble about dusk,
and make the necessary preparations for the celebration of the
'cl[=a]vie.' Proceeding to some shop, they demand a strong empty
barrel, which is usually gifted at once; but if refused, taken by
force. Another for breaking up, and a quantity of tar are likewise
procured at the same time. Thus furnished, they repair to a particular
spot close to the sea shore, and commence operations.

A hole, about four inches in diameter, is first made in the bottom of
the stronger barrel, into which the end of a stout pole, five feet in
length, is firmly fixed; to strengthen their hold, a number of
supports are nailed round the outside of the former, and also closely
round the latter. The tar is then put into the barrel, and set on
fire; and the remaining one being broken up, stave after stave is
thrown in, until it is quite full. The 'cl[=a]vie,' already burning
fiercely, is now shouldered by some strong young man, and borne away
at a rapid pace. As soon as the bearer gives signs of exhaustion,
another willingly takes his place; and should any of those who are
honoured to carry the blazing load meet with an accident, as sometimes
happens, the misfortune excites no pity, even among his near

In making the circuit of the village they are said to confine
themselves to their old boundaries. Formerly the procession visited
all the fishing boats, but this has been discontinued for some time.
Having gone over the appointed ground, the 'cl[=a]vie' is finally
carried to a small artificial eminence near the point of the
promontory, and, interesting as being a portion of the ancient
fortifications, spared, probably on account of its being used for this
purpose, where a circular heap of stones used to be hastily piled up,
in the hollow centre of which the 'cl[=a]vie' was placed, still
burning. On this eminence, which is termed the 'durie,' the present
proprietor has recently erected a small round column, with a cavity in
the centre, for admitting the free end of the pole, and into this it
is now placed. After being allowed to burn on the 'durie' for a few
minutes, the 'cl[=a]vie' is most unceremoniously hurled from its
place, and the smoking embers scattered among the assembled crowd, by
whom, in less enlightened times, they were eagerly caught at, and
fragments of them carried home, and carefully preserved as charms
against witchcraft. Some discussion took place on the origin of this
custom, but nothing satisfactory was eliminated.

Another correspondent to the same periodical (2 ser. ix. 322) says: A
practice, which may be worth noting, came under my observation at the
town of Biggar (in the upper ward of Lanarkshire) on 31st December
last. It has been customary there, from time immemorial, among the
inhabitants to celebrate what is called 'Burning out the Old Year.'
For this purpose, during the day of the 31st, a large quantity of fuel
is collected, consisting of branches of trees, brushwood, and coals,
and placed in a heap at the 'Cross'; and about nine o'clock at night
the lighting of the fire is commenced, surrounded by a crowd of
onlookers, who each thinks it a duty to cast into the flaming mass
some additional portion of material, the whole becoming sufficient to
maintain the fire till next, or New Year's morning is far advanced.
Fires are also kindled on the adjacent hills to add to the importance
of the occasion.

In Ireland, according to Croker (Researches in the South of Ireland,
p. 233), on the last night of the year a cake is thrown against the
outside door of each house, by the head of the family, which ceremony
is said to keep out hunger during the ensuing year:--

If New Year's Eve night wind blow South,
It betokeneth warmth and growth;
If West, much milk, and fish in the sea;
If North, much cold and storms there will be;
If East, the trees will bear much fruit;
If North-East, flee it, man and brute.

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Previous: St John's Day

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