01 JanHow The World Watches The New Year Come In Circa 1800

How the World Watches the New Year Come In

The proverbial “good resolutions” of the first of January which are usually forgotten the next day, the watch services in the churches, and the tin horns in the city streets, are about the only formalities connected with the American New Year. The Pilgrim fathers took no note of the day, save in this prosaic record: “We went to work betimes”; but one Judge Sewall writes with no small pride of the blast of trumpets which was sounded under his window, on the morning of January 1st, 1697.

He celebrated the opening of the eighteenth century with a very bad poem which he wrote himself, and he hired the bellman to recite the poem loudly through the streets of the town of Boston; but happily for a public, even now too much wearied with minor poets, the custom did not become general.

In Scotland and the North of England the New Year festivities are of great importance. Weeks before hand, the village boys, with great secrecy, meet in out of the way places and rehearse their favourite songs and ballads. As the time draws near, they don improvised masks and go about from door to door, singing and cutting many quaint capers. The thirty-first of December is called “Hogmanay,” and the children are told that if they go to the corner, they will see a man with as many eyes as the year has days. The children of the poorer classes go from house to house in the better districts, with a large pocket fastened to their dresses, or a large shawl with a fold in front.

Each one receives an oaten cake, a piece of cheese, or sometimes a sweet cake, and goes home at night heavily laden with a good supply of homely New Year cheer for the rest of the family.

The Scottish elders celebrate the day with a supper party, and as the clock strikes twelve, friend greets friend and wishes him “a gude New Year and mony o’ them.”

Then with great formality the door is unbarred to let the Old Year out and the New Year in, while all the guests sally forth into the streets to “first foot” their acquaintances.

The “first foot” is the first person to enter a house after midnight of December 31st. If he is a dark man, it is considered an omen of good fortune. Women generally are thought to bring ill luck, and in some parts of England a light-haired man, or a light-haired, flat-footed man is preferred. In Durham, this person must bring a piece of coal, a piece of iron, and a bottle of whiskey. He gives a glass of whiskey to each man and kisses each woman.

In Edinburgh, a great crowd gathers around the church in Hunter Square and anxiously watches the clock. There is absolute silence from the first stroke of twelve until the last, then the elders go to bed, but the young folks have other business on hand. Each girl expects the “first foot” from her sweetheart and there is occasionally much stratagem displayed in outwitting him and arranging to have some grandmother or serving maid open the door for him.

During the last century, all work was laid aside on the afternoon of the thirty-first, and the men of the hamlet went to the woods and brought home a lot of juniper bushes. Each household also procured a pitcher of water from “the dead and living ford,” meaning a ford in the river by which passengers and funerals crossed. This was brought in perfect silence and was not allowed to touch the ground in its progress as contact with the earth would have destroyed the charm.

The next morning, there were rites to protect the household against witchcraft, the evil eye, and other machinations of his satanic majesty. The father rose first, and, taking the charmed water and a brush, treated the whole family to a generous sprinkling, which was usually acknowledged with anything but gratitude.

Then all the doors and windows were closed, and the juniper boughs put on the fire. When the smoke reached a suffocating point, the fresh air was admitted. The cattle were fumigated in the same way and the painful solemnities of the morning were over.

The Scots on the first of the year consult the Bible before breakfast. They open it at random and lay a finger on a verse which is supposed to be, in some way, an augury for the coming year. If a lamp or a candle is taken out of the house on that day, some one will die during the year, and on New Year’s day a Scotchman will neither lend, borrow nor give anything whatsoever out of his house, for fear his luck may go with it, and for the same reason the floor must not be swept. Even ashes or dirty water must not be thrown out until the next day, and if the fire goes out it is a sign of death.

The ancient Druids distributed among the early Britons branches of the sacred mistletoe, which had been cut with solemn ceremony in the night from the oak trees in a forest that had been dedicated to the gods.

Among the ancient Saxons, the New Year was ushered in with friendly gifts, and all fighting ceased for three days.

In Banffshire the peat fires are covered with ashes and smoothed down. In the morning they are examined closely, and if anything resembling a human footprint is found in the ashes, it is taken as an omen. If the footprint points towards the door, one of the family will die or leave home during the year. If they point inward, a child will be born within the year.

In some parts of rural England, the village maidens go from door to door with a bowl of wassail, made of ale, roasted apples, squares of toast, nutmeg, and sugar. The bowl is elaborately decorated with evergreen and ribbons, and as they go they sing:

“Wassail, wassail to our town,
The cup is white and the ale is brown,
The cup is made of the ashen tree,
And so is the ale of the good barley.

“Little maid, little maid, turn the pin,
Open the door and let us in;
God be there, God be here;
I wish you all a Happy New Year.”

In Yorkshire, the young men assemble at midnight on the thirty-first, blacken their faces, disguise themselves in other ways, then pass through the village with pieces of chalk. They write the date of the New Year on gates, doors, shutters, and wagons. It is considered lucky to have one’s property so marked and the revellers are never disturbed.

On New Year’s Day, Henry VI received gifts of jewels, geese, turkeys, hens, and sweetmeats. “Good Queen Bess” was fairly overwhelmed with tokens of affection from her subjects. One New Year’s morning, she was presented with caskets studded with gems, necklaces, bracelets, gowns, mantles, mirrors, fans, and a wonderful pair of black silk stockings, which pleased her so much that she never afterward wore any other kind.

Among the Romans, after the reformation of the calendar, the first day, and even the whole month, was dedicated to the worship of the god Janus. He was represented as having two faces, and looking two ways—into the past and into the future. In January they offered sacrifices to Janus upon two altars, and on the first day of the month they were careful to regulate their speech and conduct, thinking it an augury for the coming year.

New Year’s gifts and cards originated in Rome, and there is a record of an amusing lawsuit which grew out of the custom. A poet was commissioned by a Roman pastry-cook to write the mottoes for the New Year day bonbons. He agreed to supply five hundred couplets for six sesterces, and though the poor poet toiled faithfully and the mottoes were used, the money was not forthcoming. He sued the pastry-cook, and got a verdict, but the cook regarded himself as the injured party. Crackers were not then invented, but we still have the mottoes—those queer heart-shaped things which were the delight of our school-days.

The Persians remember the day with gifts of eggs—literally a “lay out!”

In rural Russia, the day begins as a children’s holiday. The village boys get up at sunrise and fill their pockets with peas and wheat. They go from house to house and as the doors are never locked, entrance is easy. They throw the peas upon their enemies and sprinkle the wheat softly upon their sleeping friends.

After breakfast, the finest horse in the little town is decorated with evergreens and berries and led to the house of the greatest nobleman, followed by the pea and wheat shooters of the early morning. The lord admits both horse and people to his house, where the whole family is gathered, and the children of his household make presents of small pieces of silver money to those who come with the horse. This is the greeting of the peasants to their lord and master.

Next comes a procession of domestic animals, an ox, cow, goat, and pig, all decorated with evergreens and berries. These do not enter the house but pass slowly up and down outside, that the master and his family may see. Then the old women of the village bring barnyard fowls to the master as presents, and these are left in the house which the horse has only recently vacated. Even the chickens are decorated with strings of berries around their necks and bits of evergreen fastened to their tails.

The Russians have also a ceremony which is more agreeable. On each New Year’s Day, a pile of sheaves is heaped up over a large pile of grain, and the father, after seating himself behind it, asks the children if they can see him. They say they cannot, and he replies that he hopes the crops for the coming year will be so fine that he will be hidden in the fields.

In the cities there is a grand celebration of mass in the morning and the rest of the day is devoted to congratulatory visits. Good wishes which cannot be expressed in person are put into the newspapers in the form of advertisements, and in military and official circles ceremonial visits are paid.

The Russians are very fond of fortune-telling, and on New Year’s eve the young ladies send their servants into the street to ask the names of the first person they meet, and many a bashful lover has hastened his suit by taking good care to be the first one who is met by the servant of his lady love. At midnight, each member of the family salutes every other member with a kiss, beginning with the head of the house, and then they retire, after gravely wishing each other a Happy New Year.

Except that picturesque rake, Leopold of Belgium, every monarch of Europe has for many years begun the New Year with a solemn appeal to the Almighty, for strength, guidance, and blessing.

The children in Belgium spend the day in trying to secure a “sugar uncle” or a “sugar aunt.” The day before New Year, they gather up all the keys of the household and divide them. The unhappy mortal who is caught napping finds himself in a locked room, from which he is not released until a ransom is offered. This is usually money for sweets and is divided among the captors.

In France, no one pays much attention to Christmas, but New Year’s day is a great festival and presents are freely exchanged. The President of France also holds a reception somewhat similar to, and possibly copied from, that which takes place in the White House.

In Germany, complimentary visits are exchanged between the merest acquaintances, and New Year’s gifts are made to the servants. The night of the thirty-first is called Sylvester Aben and while many of the young people dance, the day in more serious households takes on a religious aspect. During the evening, there is prayer at the family altar, and at midnight the watchman on the church tower blows his horn to announce the birth of the New Year.

At Frankfort-on-the-Main a very pretty custom is observed. On New Year’s eve the whole city keeps a festival with songs, feasting, games, and family parties in every house. When the great bell in the cathedral tolls the first stroke of midnight, every house opens wide its windows. People lean from the casements, glass in hand, and from a hundred thousand throats comes the cry: “Prosit Neujahr!” At the last stroke, the windows are closed and a midnight hush descends upon the city.

The hospitable Norwegians and Swedes spread their tables heavily; for all who may come in at Stockholm there is a grand banquet at the Exchange, where the king meets his people in truly democratic fashion.

The Danes greet the New Year with a tremendous volley of cannon, and at midnight old Copenhagen is shaken to its very foundations. It is considered a delicate compliment to fire guns and pistols under the bedroom windows of one’s friends at dawn of the new morning.

The dwellers in Cape Town, South Africa, are an exception to the general custom of English colonists, and after the manner of the early Dutch settlers they celebrate the New Year during the entire week. Every house is full of visitors, every man, woman, and child is dressed in gay garments, and no one has any business except pleasure. There are picnics to Table Mountain, and pleasure excursions in boats, with a dance every evening. At the end of the week, everybody settles down and the usual routine of life is resumed.

In the Indian Empire, the day which corresponds to our New Year is called “Hooly” and is a feast in honour of the god Krishna. Caste temporarily loses ground and the prevailing colour is red. Every one who can afford it wears red garments, red powder is thrown as if it were confetti, and streams of red water are thrown upon the passers-by. It is all taken in good part, however, as snowballing is with us.

Even “farthest North,” where the nights are six months long, there is recognition of the New Year. The Esquimaux come out of their snow huts and ice caves in pairs, one of each pair being dressed in women’s clothes. They gain entrance into every igloo in the village, moving silently and mysteriously. At last there is not a light left in the place, and having extinguished every fire they can find, they kindle a fresh one, going through in the meantime solemn ceremonies. From this one source, all the fires and lights in the district are kindled anew.

One wonders if there may not be some fear in the breasts of these Children of the North, when for an instant they stand in the vastness of the midnight, utterly without fire or light.

The most wonderful ceremonies connected with the New Year take place in China and Japan. In these countries and in Corea the birth of the year is considered the birthday of the whole community. When a child is born he is supposed to be a year old, and he remains thus until the changing seasons bring the annual birthday of the whole Mongolian race, when another year is credited to his account.

In the Chinese quarter of the large cities, the New Year celebrations are dreaded by the police, since where there is so much revelry there is sure to be trouble. In the native country, the rejoicings absorb fully a month, during the first part of which no hunger is allowed to exist within the Empire.

The refreshments are light in kind—peanuts, watermelon seeds, sweetmeats, oranges, tea and cakes. Presents of food are given to the poor, and “brilliant cakes,” supposed to help the children in their studies, are distributed from the temples.

The poor little Chinamen must sadly need some assistance, in view of the fact that every word in their language has a distinct root, and their alphabet contains over twenty thousand letters.

At an early hour on New Year’s morning, which according to their calendar comes between the twenty-first of January and the nineteenth of February, they propitiate heaven and earth with offerings of rice, vegetables, tea, wine, oranges, and imitation of paper money which they burn with incense, joss-sticks, and candles.

Strips of scarlet paper, bearing mottoes, which look like Chinese laundry checks, are pasted around and over doors and windows. Blue strips among the red, mean that a death has occurred in the family since the last celebration.

New Year’s calls are much in vogue in China, where every denizen of the Empire pays a visit to each of his superiors, and receives them from all of his inferiors. Sometimes cards are sent, and, as with us, this takes the place of a call.

Images of gods are carried in procession to the beating of a deafening gong, and mandarins go by hundreds to the Emperor and the Dowager Empress, with congratulatory addresses. Their robes are gorgeously embroidered and are sometimes heavy with gold. After this, they worship their household gods.

Illuminations and fireworks make the streets gorgeous at night, and a monstrous Chinese dragon, spouting flame, is drawn through the streets.

People salute each other with cries of “Kung-hi! Kung-hi!” meaning I humbly wish you joy, or “Sin-hi! Sin-hi!” May joy be yours.

Many amusements in the way of theatricals and illumination are provided for the public.

In both China and Japan, all debts must be paid and all grudges settled before the opening of the New Year. Every one is supposed to have new clothes for the occasion, and those who cannot obtain them remain hidden in their houses.

In Japan, the conventional New Year costume is light blue cotton, and every one starts out to make calls. Letters on rice paper are sent to those in distant places, conveying appropriate greetings.

The Japanese also go to their favourite tea gardens where bands play, and wax figures are sold. Presents of cooked rice and roasted peas, oranges, and figs are offered to every one. The peas are scattered about the houses to frighten away the evil spirits, and on the fourth day of the New Year, the decorations of lobster, signifying reproduction, cabbages indicating riches, and oranges, meaning good luck, are taken down and replaced with boughs of fruit trees and flowers.

Strange indeed is the country in which the milestones of Time pass unheeded. In spite of all the mirth and feasting, there is an undercurrent of sadness which has been most fitly expressed by Charles Lamb:

“Of all the sounds, the most solemn and touching is the peal which rings out the old year. I never hear it without gathering up in my mind a concentration of all the images that have been diffused over the past twelve months; all that I have done or suffered, performed, or neglected, in that regretted time. I begin to know its worth as when a person dies. It takes a personal colour, nor was it a poetical flight in a contemporary, when he exclaimed: ‘I saw the skirts of the departing year!’”

Enjoy the New Year,
Teresa Thomas Bohannon
Author of the Regency Romance Novel, A Very Merry Chase

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