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

provided.



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--



Hogmanay,

Trollolay,

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

relatives.



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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