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

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.