A ‘Waits’ Carol’ (1642) to the tune ‘Greensleeves’, for New Year:
‘The old year now away is fled,
The new year it is enteréd,
Then let us now our sins down-tread,
And joyfully all appear;
Let’s merry be this day,
And let us now both sport and play:
Hang grief, cast care away!
God send you a happy New Year!’
From the Celtic Druids to the Romans to the Saxons, the British made a feature of welcoming the New Year, so the festival has been celebrated in Britain throughout its entire history, back at least as far as the time of Christ, and before Christmas was even thought of by an Early Church which was, in any case, more concerned with the powerful image of the King on the Cross rather than the babe in the manger. For three-quarters of that history, however, New Year’s Eve was celebrated on 31st March. It was the French who changed the start of the year to Jan 1st in 1564, so that New Year gifts and cards were then transferred to January.
Obviously, everyone likes fresh starts and new opportunities, the chance to make resolutions, so the largely secular festival has won out over the Church’s celebration of the naming of Jesus, which I introduced yesterday and will write more about tomorrow. For the Eve of this celebration, the Methodist leader inaugerated the Watch Night Service still held in many parishes and wrote a special hymn for it, ‘Come let us anew our journey pursue’.
However, most people welcome in the New Year in Britain outside the Church, in pubs, clubs, hotels, in the streets, or at home. I remember, as a teenager, being sent by my school at New Year for a ‘Council for Education in World Citizenship’ Conference, which meant staying in a London hotel on New Year’s Eve. Naturally, our group wanted to go to Trafalgar Square for the celebrations, but on the way there by ‘tube’ I got off the train a stop early. Before I had noticed, the ‘sliding doors’ had closed and I was stranded, on my own in a strange city. As I made my way towards Nelson’s Column, looking for my own schoolmates, and failing to find them, I enjoyed a series of ‘interactions’ and conversations with revellers from all parts of London and further afield. After midnight, when everyone greeted everone else they could with ‘Happy New Year’ and kisses from strange girls were abundant, I was almost glad I’d lost my friends and been forced out of my natural shyness, introversion and traditional British reserve! Looking back on it now, and having since watched the film ‘Sliding Doors‘, I often wonder what would have happened had I been able to get back on that train, and not had to renew and ‘pursue’ my journey alone. Would I have missed one of those crucial turning points in my formative experiences? Trafalgar Square was, quite literally as well as metaphorically, just that for me.
In Scotland, the New Year is called ‘Hogmanay’, from the Old French ‘Au gui l’an neuf’ – ‘To the Mistletoe, the New Year’, the Druidical greeting given by revellers returning from the woods with boughs of mistletoe, like the one hanging from my first floor balcony. At midnight comes a note of solemnity and slight apprehension with the New Year ceremony of ‘first footing’. The household, in silence, listens for the stroke of midnight. As the last stroke of the twelve is sounded a knock at the door is heard. The door opens, revealing a strange man with dark hair. He enters without greeting, carrying a branch and a sprig of mistletoe. The branch he puts on the fire, the mistletoe on the mantelpiece. Then the silence is broken and he is given wine and cake by the master of the house and all greet each other with the New Year toast. The stranger may also bring bread, salt and coal, the symbols of hospitality and warmth. He can be offered a piece of silver and usually the stranger takes the mistletoe under which he kisses all the ladies!
The stranger represents the new-born year which comes in uninvited and cannot be turned away, bringing the promise of the light and warmth of the sun, made welcome in the darkest days of midwinter. The stranger might be asked to ‘first foot’ several times in the neighbourhood, but if no stranger was available, a member of the household would perform the ceremony, masked. More recently, a new variant of the custom has arisen, one which I participated in on my only visit to Edinburgh at New Year. All the men at a party go out just before midnight and all re-enter, following the youngest of the group. This merges the pagan tradition with the Christian one whereby the whole company went out shortly after midnight to offer triangular mince-pies known as ‘God’ cakes which symbolised the Trinity.
In 1841 Queen Victoria ordered New Year to be welcomed by a fanfare of trumpets, which, she observed ‘had a fine solemn effect which quite affected dear Albert, who turned pale, and had tears in his eyes, and pressed my hand very warmly.’ Of course, most of us ordinary folk have to make do with rather badly and incorrectly sung versions of ‘Auld Lang Syne‘ by Robert Burns.
Burns’ last line was not ‘for the sake of auld lang syne’…but…
‘And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere
And gies a hand o’thine
And we’ll tak a right guid-willie waught,
For auld lang syne’
Happy New Year! I hope it brings you resolutions to current conflicts and problems, fresh opportunities and turning points, with the courage to set off anew in pursuit of different routes on your journey.
Seventh Day of Christmas: Seven Swans-a-Swimming (merlinspielen.com)
New Years Traditions & New Years Eve Traditions | Pottery Barn (potterybarn.com)
Sing Our Auld Lang Syne (musingbymoonlight.com)
Photography: Reflections (marygilmartin.wordpress.com)
Learn the words: Auld Lang Syne (themotherload.me)
Moonday’s Heroic Hunk in History: Robert Burns & Auld Lang Syne (southernsizzleromance.wordpress.com)