As the New Year approaches, I find myself wondering about some of the traditional customs we associate with it, here in the British Isles and how they vary from region to region….
New Year is one of our oldest holidays, although the exact date of the festivities has changed over the times. Its origins can be traced back thousands of years to Ancient Babylon, when, starting on the first day of Spring, (which was determined by the cycle of the Sun and Moon), an eleven day long festival was held. These early, mostly Pagan, celebrations were in honour of the Earth’s cycles….
January the 1st became the common day for celebrating New Year with the introduction of the Julian Calendar, implemented by Julius Ceasar….
The Julian Calendar has its flaws, namely that it does not accurately record the actual time it takes for the Earth to circle once around the Sun (tropical year). It is because of this, that in 1582 the Gregorian Calendar was first introduced. Also known as the Western or Christian Calendar, it is the most commonly used one in the World today. It is named after its founder, Pope Gregory XIII but it was not adopted by the whole World immediately. In fact, it took over 300 years for it to become used to the extent it is today. France, Italy and Spain were amongst the first to employ it, the United Kingdom, United States and Canada did not start using it until 1752. Turkey was the last and it wasn’t until 1927 that they followed suit….
After the fall of the Roman Empire the date for New Year changed in Britain to March the 25th. It wasn’t until the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar that January 1st became the official day once again. It took until 1974 for it to become a public bank holiday….
There have always been superstitions associated with New Year, evolving in their own particular ways, from one part of the country to another. Most of them relate to luck and new beginnings….
Making New Year’s resolutions goes back to ancient times. Other customs and beliefs have come to us along the way…. Some are more general, such as opening the door at midnight to let the old year out and the new one in….
‘First Footing’ is also a widely observed custom but one that has its variations depending on its whereabouts in the country. Most commonly though, it is believed that the first person to cross the threshold after midnight, should have dark hair, to bring good luck. Ideally, they should bring coal, to symbolise warmth for the coming year, bread to represent food and salt for money – (hence the saying “worth his salt”). Many believe that if a blonde person were to be the first, ill luck would be forth coming. Many Scottish people believe the First Footer should be a stranger. In Wales, where it is known as ‘Nos Galan’, it is considered that if the first visitor is a woman and the door is opened by a man, this will bring bad luck. The Welsh also believe that bad luck will also be brought if the First Footer is a red head. Another belief is that all debt must be paid by the end of the year. To start a new year owing, would mean a whole year will be spent in debt….
Another popular superstition was – ‘the cream of the well’. It was believed that if a woman washed in the first water drawn from the well on New Year’s Day, she would become beautiful….
Some traditions are very regional. In Yorkshire, just before midnight, people say “black rabbits, black rabbits, black rabbits”. Then immediately after the clock has struck, “white rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits”. By saying these words, good luck is ensured for the coming year. This is where the saying “white rabbit” comes from, said by so many of us on the first day of every month….
Herefordshire once had an old tradition of ‘burning a bush’. A young farmer, rising before day break, would cut down a hawthorn bush and set fire to it, to guarantee a good harvest later in the coming year….
Fire seems to feature in many of our New Year’s customs and beliefs. Northumberland for instance, has the Allendale Tar Barrel Festival. On the 31st of December, whisky barrels are filled with kindling, sawdust and burning tar, they are then paraded through the streets, on the heads of barrel carriers, called ‘Guisers’….
In Perthshire, the town of Comrie has its Flambeaux Procession. Eight, flaming torches are carried through the town and then are flung from a bridge into the River Earn, this is meant to cast out any evil spirits….
Stonehaven, near Aberdeen, has a Fireball and Chain Festival. Sixty, kilt clad marchers, swing about their heads, sixteen pound balls of fire attached to wire ropes, whilst parading through the streets accompanied by pipes and drums….
The Welsh people have their own gift giving tradition of ‘Calennig’. Some think this custom goes back to Pagan times. The name ‘Calennig’ is thought to come from the Latin ‘calends’ or ‘kalends’ – meaning first day of the month, which is also where we get the word ‘calendar’ from. A Calennig is a small decoration made from an apple, (or perhaps, nowadays, an orange), which has been studded with cloves and supported on three twigs. A sprig of box foliage is then inserted into the top of the fruit. It is meant as a token to ensure a future good harvest and is either displayed in the house or given as a traditional New Year’s gift….
Welsh children often get up early on New Year’s Day, (Dydd Calan), in order to go and sing songs to their neighbours, perhaps taking calennig decorations as gifts. In return, they receive sweets and money….
Another Welsh tradition, especially in South Wales, first recorded in 1800 and known as ‘Mari Lwyd’ (Venerable Mary), was not always so welcome! The skull of a horse, decorated with colourful streamers, would be carried on a pole and made so that the jaws could be snapped open and shut. The bearer would be covered in a white sheet, draped from the skull. Then, accompanied by a group of men, the ‘horse’ would go from house to house. The home owners would be challenged to a contest in song and rhyme, each taking a turn to banter in a more and more humorous and witty way as the contest progressed. The idea was for the group to be invited into the house to partake in ‘merriment’, in the form of food and drink. Obviously, having a group of boisterous, probably drunk, rabble of men, turn up on the doorstep, late at night, wielding a horse’s skull and expecting fun and banter….did not appeal to all! So, this custom began to decline at the beginning of the 20th Century. It was also discouraged by some of the Christian clergy, who frowned upon its Pagan origins….
Then, of course, we come to Scotland’s Hogmanay – the Scots word for the last day of the year. The exact origins of the name are unknown, the earliest references come from the 1600’s, with many spellings, such as ‘hagmane’, ‘hog ma nae’ and ‘hagmonay’….
Christmas, as we know it, was not celebrated as a festival in Scotland. In fact, from the end of the 17th Century, right up to the 1950’s, it was more or less banned…. Most Scottish people had to work over the Christmas period and instead celebrated the Winter Solstice holiday of New Year. The reason being, the Kirk (Church) viewed Christmas as a Catholic feast and as the Scottish Church had its roots in the Protestant Reformation, the festivities had to be banned….
‘Hand Selling’ was once the Scottish custom of giving gifts, it would happen on the first Monday of the year but this has now died out. Instead, New Year became the time for Scots to gather, exchange gifts, feast and hold celebrations. An important part of the festivities was (and indeed still is today), to welcome both friends and strangers into the home, to enjoy warmth and hospitality….
Hundreds of years ago, Pagan festivities would include lighting bonfires and rolling tar barrels, that had been set ablaze, down hillsides. These traditions are reflected in the magnificent firework displays and torch light processions, held every year, in Edinburgh and many other Scottish cities. Even more Pagan was the act of wrapping animal hide around a stick and setting it alight. The smoke was believed to ward off evil spirits, the smoking stick was known as a ‘Hogmanay’. Other customs would involve people dressing up in cowhides and running around the village whilst being beaten with sticks! Some of the more rural, remote communities, especially the Highlands and Islands, still continue a form of these old traditions today. For example, in the Outer Hebrides, on the Isle of Lewis, young boys divide into groups, the leader dresses in a sheepskin and they move from house to house, with a sack in which they collect a type of fruit bun, called a bannock….
In other parts of Scotland, it is traditional to give children a Hogmanay Oatcake on New Year’s Eve – this represents the time when they would of gone from door to door asking for oatcakes and bread….
“Get up, goodwife, and shake your feathers,
And dinna think that we are beggars;
For we are bairns come out to play,
Get up and gie’s our Hogmanay!”
One of the oldest traditions (and one shared by many cultures), is the cleaning of the house until it is spotless, on New Year’s Eve, making sure every task is finished. Symbols for what is desired for the coming year may be left out, such as food, so there will be plenty to come, coins for wealth and dolls, for the hope of being surrounded by family. Many Scots fast, or perhaps just have a very small breakfast, on New Year’s Eve. Then, once the magical hour of midnight arrives, all the windows and doors of the house are flung open to welcome in the New Year and to let out the old. Then a huge feast is partaken of….but not of course until the traditional “Auld Lang Syne” has been sung….
Nowadays, Auld Lang Syne has been adopted as the official New Year’s song, by just about every English speaking nation of the World….
It was in 1788, that Robert Burns first recorded the lyrics on paper and sent them to the Scots Musical Museum. He had based his famous poem on an earlier song, printed by James Watson in 1711. There is doubt as to whether the tune we all know and sing the words to, is actually the melody Burns intended….
Roughly translated, “Auld Lang Syne” means “for old times sake”. It is about looking back over the previous year and preserving friendships….
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot
And auld lang syne
For auld lang syne, my jo
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne….
On that note….it just remains for me to wish you, in whatever way you choose to celebrate it – A very happy and prosperous New Year!