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Cory Santos


Cory Santos is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Lincoln who specialises in the social history of Britain during the Second World War. Besides his main research focuses, he also enjoys local history and the interesting tales it often turns up.

New Year’s in Britain has a long, winding and strange history, one with supposed pagan undertones and Christian adaptation. Given its current wild celebration, perhaps it is fitting that it has returned to the date set in stone by the pagan Caesar that was bemoaned and belittled by the church for over a thousand years.

From many to one

The history of our modern New Year’s begins with the ancient Romans. In the Roman calendar, the year officially began with the appointment of the new consuls. This occurred at various dates under the old Roman republic, but was finally altered to the 1st of January in 145 B.C.

This date was officially set in stone by Julius Caesar in 45 B.C and would remain the start of the New Year for the rest of the history of the Western Roman world. The significance of January 1st went beyond simply the appointment of the new consuls.

As January was associated with the Roman god Janus, a two-faced deity, the beginning of that month served a fitting break –the ability to look back on the previous year, while looking forward to the New Year which laid ahead.

A statue representing Janus Bifrons in the Vatican Museums

A statue representing Janus Bifrons in the Vatican Museums

As the Western Roman world crumbled in the later  4th and early 5th centuries, however, the date of the New Year began to shift. As Germanic hordes conquered the old provinces, they brought with them their own customs. Certain areas where a semblance of the old Roman system survived, such as Lincoln, probably maintained the 1st of January date, but by the 6th century it had certainly disappeared.

The general consensus amongst the post-Roman world and newly Christian world was that the Roman New Year’s was a pagan festival and therefore it should be abolished. This was firmly put in stone at the Council of Tours in 567, where the celebration of New Year’s on that date was condemned and Easter the recommended choice.

From this point on, the date of the New Year’s went on a strange journey across Europe, but especially in Britain. To the Anglo-Saxon’s, the New Year shifted the 25th of December and Christmas. It seemed a fitting date, seeing as it coincided with the birth of Jesus Christ. Elsewhere in Europe, however, it varied widely by kingdom – from the 2nd  of December, to the 25th of March, or even the 1st of September.

The 25th of December remained the official start of the New Year in England until 1066. After this it shifted back to 1st January. This shift was made by decree of William the Conqueror, who wished for the New Year to coincide with his coronation. He had been crowned amongst wild celebration on Christmas Day and felt that January 1st (which marked the date of Jesus’s circumcision – Christmas plus 8 days) fit the bill.

It should be noted, however, that as January 1st was condemned as a pagan day by the Council of Tours, and England was still a devoutly Catholic state, this was only the start of the civic New Year’s, and not the religious one. Indeed, the mocking of the pagan January 1st in this period is best exemplified by the ‘Feast of Fools’ I mentioned in my last column – where drunken priests would sing bawdy songs and wear crude masks.

Eventually by the 12th century (1155 to be precise), England decided its New Year’s should coincide with the other kingdoms of Europe for general ease. Thus, by this time the New Year’s was changed again – from 1st January  to 25th March. The significance of the date was the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary (or Lady Day if that’s too much of a mouth full to say). This was the supposed day when Mary was told she had immaculately conceived.  This would remain the date for centuries, though by Tudor times things would begin to become complicated again.

By the 14th and 15th centuries, the concept of New Yaer’s was turned on its head yet again. There was a gradual re-adoption of 1st January as New Year’s – first in the east, with Lithuania in 1362 and then by Venice, some 150 years later. The change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar prompted many states to shift to the 1st of January, and soon the chaos of a lack of a unified European New Year’s returned.

This was especially problematic in Britain, as in 1600 the Kingdom of Scotland shifted its New Year’s to January 1st. When James VI became James I, he now ruled over a theoretically United Kingdom with 2 separate New Year’s. Even with the addition of the formal union, the situation did not improve.

William Hogarth painting (c. 1755) which is the main source for “Give us our Eleven Days”, which refers to the Calendar Act of 1750.

Now an actual United Kingdom had two official New Years, causing chaos – especially for the tax man. Something clearly needed to be done and in 1750, parliament passed the Calendar Act. This Act sought to bring the UK in line with the Europe and the Gregorian calendar (but not wanting to associate with anything ‘Catholic’ specifically did not mention the Gregorian calendar itself) and set 1st January as the start of the New Year starting in 1752. This resulted in the rather strangely short year of 1751, where it began on 25 March and ended on 31st December – a span of just 282 days.

New Year’s traditions

I would be remiss if I didn’t briefly touch upon some of the historical traditions associated with the New Year — some still around and others not. Gift giving was a very important part of the New Year, particularly in medieval times.

On the New Year, lords would present opulent gifts to the King in order to gain favour. In return, the King was expected to present lavish gifts as well, to show his kindness and to reward loyalty. This tradition extended into the lower ranks of society as well, but with the shift to 1st January as the New Year this gradually fell in to decline, with Christmas Day becoming the preferred date of gift giving.

One tradition which still remains to an extent –particularly in Scotland with the Hogmanay, is the concept of ‘first-footing.’ As the New Year had perceived pagan roots, the day was considered potentially unlucky. Therefore, it was hoped and prayed that the first person to enter the household in the New Year would be a young, dark-haired man.

This would be a sign of good luck for the coming year. Conversely, if the first entrant was female, blonde or had red hair, this was considered bad luck. The first to enter also followed a ritualised procession. Gifts were meant to be brought (preferably coal, but also mistletoe, money, or bread) and offered as a hope for prosperity in the upcoming year, the coal placed on the fire (bread on the table, presenting of mistletoe and so forth), and the guest to leave through the rear of the house – all without uttering a single word.

But, if you feel any sentimentality towards the old New Years of 25th March I’ll happily squash that right now – 25th March as the New Year still lives on. 6th April is the start of the new tax year (25th March plus the 11 days added on in 1751).

Not all New Years are happy, so make sure to enjoy this approaching one. Happy New Year!

Cory Santos is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Lincoln who specialises in the social history of Britain during the Second World War. Besides his main research focuses, he also enjoys local history and the interesting tales it often turns up.

The celebrations surrounding Christmas have changed dramatically throughout the centuries. From the simple roots of early Christianity evolved into a grand celebration incorporating traditions from other festivals – most notably the Yule celebrations of the Norse, as I discussed last week. One period truly stands out however, for the level of decadence and revelry which is encouraged: the medieval Christmas.

Medieval Christmas was a celebration as long as it was both solemn and bawdy. The season dominated the Christian calendar, beginning with the 40 days of St. Martin which began on the December 11.

This period saw the ramping up of preparation for the upcoming Christmas celebrations. This season, now called Advent, heralded the start of the Christmas celebrations, but by the 12th century the focus of the majority of the festivities was centred around the 12 days of Christmas, or Christmastide, beginning on the December 2 and ending on January 5.

Originally, the Epiphany (the 12th night of Christmas) was the major focus of the Christmas celebrations. By the high middle ages, however, Christmas day quickly grew to be the emphasis. A traditional Christmas day involved both solemn religious ritual and raucous and decadent celebration. Three masses were held during the day – the midnight, or angel’s mass; the dawn, or shepherd’s mass; and the final daytime, or mass of the Divine Word. These masses symbolized Christ’s birth bringing light to the dark, cold world and helped instil the importance of the festive season on its attendees.

Faith and solemn religious ritual are certainly an important part of Christmas, but so is (as I’m sure everyone will agree) merriment and celebration – and no one did it bigger (or better) than the people of the later middle ages. The end of the Christmas masses heralded nearly a fortnight of wild festivities, full of food, games, song and drink.

Perhaps the most important celebration was the Christmas feast. While a modern Christmas meal may seem somewhat excessive today, if you were anyone of note in the medieval period the feast you provided would put even the ‘Chelsea-est’ of footballers to shame. Take for example the Bishop of Hereford in 1289. He held a feast for 41 guests in which they consumed, ‘two carcasses and three quarters of beef, two calves, four does, four pigs, sixty fowls, eight partridges, two geese and bread and cheese.’

There is no account of how much beer was consumed, but it was noted that the 42 in attendance did drink 40 gallons of red wine and 4 of white. The peasants, while obviously not indulging in such opulence, were often given a satisfactory meal by their lords. One such example from Somerset being three tenants being given 2 loaves of bread, a ‘mess of beef and bacon,’ a chicken, cheese, mustard, cooking fuel and as much beer as they could possibly drink for the day. Hardly a feast fit for a bishop, but given the difficult life of a medieval peasant, certainly a meal to look forward to.

An illustration of the Feast of Fools.

An illustration of the Feast of Fools.

Beyond the gastronomic excesses of the Christmas feast, the 12 days of Christmas were a hedonistic time of revelry, where the many of the norms of medieval society were turned on their head. This can best be exemplified by three particular events: Boxing Day, Childermas and the Feast of the Fools. Boxing Day, perhaps the best known of the three, saw the master, or landlord switch roles and offer their apprentices or tenants gifts, often in the form of clay jars containing coins.

In order to access the money, the jar (nicknamed a ‘piggy’) would have to smashed – hence the origins of the term piggy bank. Childermas, or Holy Innocents Day, was a strange festival celebrated on December 28. Commemorating the order by Herod to kill all the male children of Judea, the festival originally saw children beaten, though by the late medieval period it had taken a much different path.

On this day a child would be elevated to the level of Bishop. The boy would then be allowed to give mass and say a sermon, collect gifts of money and perform marriages (which were only valid as long as the boy was bishop – just for the day).

A similar event, known as the Feast of the Fools (and widely condemned by the church) was held on January 1. This ‘feast’ usually saw sub deacons or other lower clergy, pretend to be bishops and mock their behaviour – often giving drunken sermons, wearing masks, singing lewd songs and even throwing sausages at the congregation!

Illustration of the 'lord of misrule'

Illustration of the ‘lord of misrule’

This wild behaviour was mirrored by the public, who chose a ‘Lord of misrule’ to oversee the drunken festivities of the 12 nights. These festivities included carolling, which far from being the mundane and vanilla tradition of today was one of bawdy songs and excessive drinking. It was in many ways similar to the Viking ’mumming’ I talked about last week. Games of chance and gambling were also extremely popular, as sports, such as football, were discouraged during the period.

All this drunken revelry had to come to end, however, and it did on January 6 –the Day of the Epiphany (although not without a bang). In the middle ages, it became popular to celebrate the ending of the Christmas season with a game of mob football –something which had not been allowed over the previous fortnight. These matches often involved entire villages against each other, attempting to move an object to a predetermined location (similar to rugby). Examples of this exist throughout Europe, particularly in Britain and France – and probably best exemplified locally by the Haxey Hood (which I hope to take part in this year).

Illustration of mob football.

Illustration of mob football.

While January 6 generally ended the Christmas festivities it did not end the Christmas season. This occurred nearly a month later with the Candlemas of February 2. This festival, also known as the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, saw parishioners bring a candle and a penny to church to be blessed.

This blessing offered the faithful hope of light, warmth and prosperity during the dark winter months – similar to the Yule log of the Norse tradition. This was also when Christmas decorations were taken down, thus officially ending the Christmas season for another year.

Our modern Christmas has been toned down greatly over the proceeding centuries through a combination of cultural evolution and protestant moderation. Our modern holiday season does, however, share some similarities: the importance of merriment and feasting with family and friends and enjoying games with them and the wider community. The medieval Christmas is something that could never fit in to modern society – a politically incorrect, often anti-social mash of faith and frivolity- but it sounds like it was a good time while it lasted.

Merry Christmas!

Cory Santos is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Lincoln who specialises in the social history of Britain during the Second World War. Besides his main research focuses, he also enjoys local history and the interesting tales it often turns up.

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