Saturday, December 29, 2012

Happy New Year - Victorian Style

With New Year's almost upon us, I wondered about the origins of our present customs and how our Victorian ancestors celebrated the turning of the year.

The custom of celebrating the new year on January 1 goes back to Roman times, when the calendar was standardized under Julius Ceasar. The name of the month January is after the Roman god Janus, a god with two faces looking in opposite directions, the guardian of doorways. The coming year being depicted as a new baby and the past year an old man, goes all the way back to Ancient Greece, with the baby being the reborn god Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry. Effigies of the old year were burnt, noise was made at midnight to scare away spirits of the old year, and a figure of the new years baby was paraded around in celebration. In later Christian times the Church first tried to get rid of these revelries, but then absorbed them changing the baby to the Christ child.

In Medieval times there was a custom of gift giving on New Years in some parts of Europe. In England gifts would be given to the king, and he would give gifts to loyal servants. The wealthy would also give gifts to their servants on this day.

Many of the Victorian practices are actually from the Scottish new years Hogmanay traditions. Queen Victoria was obsessed with all things Scottish and popularized many of the practices. Hogmanay was a bigger celebration in Scotland than Christmas, as the latter was see as too Catholic after the Protestant Reformation. Hogmanay traditions also included gift giving. It was considered good luck if the first person after midnight to cross the threshold brought gifts, traditionally buns, shortbread, coal, salt and whiskey, as the first person and what they brought,would foretell the family's fortune for the year. It was also auspicious if that person was male and dark haired (blonde foretold trouble). People took it so seriously there were complaints that women were left wandering around if caught outside after midnight, not let back in until a dark haired male got home!

Victorians also practiced gift giving on New Years of the items mentioned above. Sending cards, and gifts of gloves, oranges with cloves, nutmeg and money were all auspicious gifts. They also practiced foretelling the new year by what happened on Jan.01. It was said that what you were doing at midnight would predict the coming year. It was bad luck to be in bed as this might lead to illness. This is also where kissing your partner at midnight comes from. On New Year's Day it was bad luck to clear the hearth of ashes, as this was to be done the day before to clear out the old year. It was also bad luck to do laundry, or take fire out of the house, even in the form of a lamp or candle. It was considered important to have money in your pocket on this day or risk poverty for the coming year. Victorians also enjoyed practicing divination
on January 01, including tea leaf reading, and bibliomancy (opening a book,particularly the Bible, and reading a passage to predict the future). They were more concerned with foretelling the year than setting resolutions, which is a more modern practice.

I hope everyone has a wonderful New Year! What are some of your New Year's traditions?

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1 comment:

  1. What lovely traditions! I love knowing the ideas behind traditions and charming little things like giving people cloves and oranges.