The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

New Year's Gifts

Source: Brand's Popular Antiquities Of Great Britain

W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, Past and Current, With Their Classical and Foreign Analogues, Described and Illustrated.

Forming A New Edition of "The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain" By Brand and Ellis, Largely Extended, Corrected, Brought Down To The Present Time, and Now First Alphabetically Arranged.

In Two Volumes

London: Reeves and Turner, 1905.

Vol. 2, pp. 435-36

As the vulgar, says Bourne, are always very careful to end the old year well, so they are no less solicitous of making a good beginning of the now one. The old one is ended with a hearty compotation. The new one is opened with the custom of sending presents, which are termed New Year’s Gifts, to friends and acquaintances. He resolves both customs into superstitions as being observed that the succeeding year ought to be prosperous and successful. Stillingfleet says, that among the Saxons of the Northern nations the Feast of the New Year was kept with more than ordinary jollity: thence, as Olaus Wormius and Scheffer observe, they reckoned their ago by so many Iolas; and Snorro Sturleson describes this New Year’s Feast, just as Buchanan sets out the British Saturnalia, as an occasion for feasting and sending New Year’s Gifts to one another. Orig. Brit. page 343.

In the "Monthly Miscellany" for December 1692, there is an Essay on New Year’s Gifts, which states, that "the ancient Druids, with great ceremonies, used to scrape off from the outside of oaks the misleden, which they consecrated to their great Tutates, and then distributed it to the people thro’ the Gauls, on account of the great virtues which they attributed, to it; whence New Year’s Gifts are still called in some parts of France Guy-l’ en-neuf. Our English nobility, every New Year’s tide, still send to the King a purse with gold in it. Reason may be joined to custom to justify the practice; for as presages are drawn from the first things which are met on the beginning of a day, week or year, none can be more pleasing than of those things that are given us. We rejoice with our friends after having escaped the dangers that attend every year, and congratulate each other for the future by presents and wishes for the happy continuance of that course, which the ancients called Strenarum Commercium. And as formerly men used to renew their hospitalities by presents called Xenia, a name proper enough for our New Year’s Gifts, they may be said to serve to renew friendship, which is one of the greatest gifts imparted by Heaven to men: and they, who have always assigned some day to those things which they thought good, have also judged it proper to solemnize the Festival of Gifts, and to show how much they esteemed it, in token of happiness, made it begin the year. The value of the thing given, or, if it is a thing of small worth, its novelty, or the excellency of the work, and the place where it is given, makes it the more acceptable, but above all, the time of giving it, which makes some presents pass for a mark of civility on the beginning of the year, that would appear unsuitable in another season." Henry III. according to Matt. Paris, appears to have extorted Gifts from his subjects. Matt. Paris, an. 1249, p. 757, ed. 1640.

A list of the New Year’s Gifts distributed by Henry VI. in 1437 is printed in "Excerpta Historica," 1833. The practice of presenting New Year’s Gifts to Royalty was sufficiently familiar in Henry VIIth’s time, and his queen used, it seems, invariably to reciprocate by making a donation as nearly equal as possible to the value received in each case. Perhaps the most splendid New Year’s Gifts ever made in early time were those which Wolsey presented to Henry VIII. One of these was a gold cup, richly chased and engraved, of the value of £117 17s. 6d. From a MS. cited by Brand, it was usual, it seems, in the time of Edward VI. to give rewards on New Year’s Day to those who had presented gifts previously to his Highness and this practice continued at least till the time of Elizabeth, of whom it must be said that, if she took from her subjects, she was very liberal, so far as estrennes were concerned in returning them "in reward" a full equivalent. Nichols, in his Preface to her Majesty’s " Progresses" observes: " The only remains of this custom at Court now is that the two chaplains in waiting, on New Year’s Day, have each a crown-piece laid under their plates at dinner.

An Orange stuck with cloves appears to have been a New Year’s Gift. So Ben Jonson, in his "Christmas, His Masque:" "He has an Orange and rosemary, but not a clove to stick in it." The use of the orange stuck with cloves may be ascertained from "The Seconde Booke of Notable Things," by Thomas Lupton (1579) "Wyae wyll be pleasant in taste and flavour, if an orenge or a lymon (stickt round about with cloves) be hanged within the vessel that it touch not the wyae: and so the wyne wyll be reserved from foystiness and evyll savor." In "Witt’s Recreations," 1640, as republished in 1817, is a descriptive poem "On a Brede of divers colours, woven by four Maids of Honour and presented to the Queen on New Year’s Day last." The queen, no doubt, was Henrietta-Maria. From a passage in Bishop Hall’s "Satires," 1598 (Book v. Sat. 1) it should seem that the usual New Year’s Gift of tenantry in the country to their landlords, was a capon: and this is corroborated in "A Lecture to the People," 1644

"Ye used in the former days to fall
Prostrate unto your landlord in his hail,
When with low legs, and in an humble guise.
Ye offer’d up a Capon-sacrifice
Unto his worship at a New Year’s Tide."

From a reference in Stephens’s "Characters," 1615, p. 283 "Like an inscription with a fat goose against New Year’s Tide," it may either be inferred that such a thing was a customary present or dish at this season. Overbury, in his Characters, speaking of " a Timist," says, that "his New Yeares Gifts are ready at Alhalomas, and the Sute he meant to meditate before them." In 1647, an anonymous writer, in addressing his tract, concerning "Motives grounded upon the word of God," to the Civic authorities of London, set forth that he presented these instead of heathenish and superstitious New Year’s Gifts. It was customary, it seems, for the bailiffs of Maiden to send on the first of the year to the King’s Vice-Admiral of Essex a present of oysters and wild fowl. Sir John Bramston notices the arrival of the gift on New Year’s Day, March 26, 1688, in his "Autobiography," printed for the Camden Society in 1845.

In Brand’s time it was still usual in Northumberland for persons to ask for a New Year’s Gift on that day. Dr. Moresin tells us that in Scotland it was in his time the custom to send New Year’s Gifts on New Year’s Eve, but that on New Year’s Day, they wished each other a happy day, and asked a New Year’s Gift. Papatus, p. 1078. Buchanan once sent to Mary Queen of Scots a quatrain, in which he begged her Majesty to accept his very good wishes in earnest of anything more substantial, and concluded with, "Et quod abest opta tu mihi, da quod adest."

It appears that the modern practice of Estrennes in France is derived from the ancient usage of strena or presents made similarly on New Year’s Day among friends with expressions of good wishes for the new season just commencing. The strena were given by relatives to each other. According to Le Bœuf, these presents had become popular in that country in the twelfth century. Divers Ecrits, i. 807. A fair is held at Paris on the Boulevards for fifteen days, commencing with the Jour de l’An, for the sale of plaything, and sweatmeats.

Naogeorgus (Thomas Kirchmaier) is cited by Hospinian, as telling us, that it was usual in his time for friends to present each other with New Year’s Gift; for the husband to give one to his wife; parents to their children; and masters to their servants, etc.; a custom derived to the Christian world from the times of Gentilism. The superstition condemned in this by the ancient fathers, lay in the idea of these gifts being considered as omens of success for the ensuing year.

Editor's Note: I regret that I am unable to provide a translation of any Latin or French passages.

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