It is at once so natural and so laudable to commemorate the nativity of the new year, which is a sort of second birthday of our own, by acts of grateful worship to heaven, and of beneficence towards our fellow-creatures, that this mode of its celebration will be found to have prevailed, with little variety of observance, among all ages and people.
Congratulations, visits, and presents of figs and dates, covered with gold-leaf, are said to have distinguished New-year’s Day even in the times of Romulus and Tatius, and to have continued under the Roman emperors, until the practice, being abused into a mode of extortion, was prohibited by Claudius. Yet the Christian emperors still received them, although they were condemned by ecclesiastical councils on account of the Pagan ceremonies at their presentation; so difficult was it found, in the earlier ages of Christianity, to detach the newly-converted people from their old observances.
The Druids of ancient Britain were accustomed on certain days to cut the sacred mistletoe with a golden knife, in a forest dedicated to the gods, and to distribute its branches with much ceremony as New-year’s gifts to the people.
Among the Saxons and northern nations this anniversary was also observed by gifts, accompanied with such extraordinary festivity, that they reckoned their age by the number of these merrimakings at which they had been present.
The Roman practice of interchanging presents and of giving them to servants, remained in force during the middle and later ages, especially among our kings and nobility; Henry III. appearing to have even imitated some of the Roman emperors by extorting them,* and Queen Elizabeth being accused of principally supporting her wardrobe and jewelry by levying similar contributions.
Pins were acceptable New-year’s gifts to the ladies, as substitutes for the wooden skewers which they used till the end of the fifteenth century. Instead of this present they sometimes received a composition in money, whence the allowance for their separate use is still termed ” pin-money.”
To the credit of the kindly and amiable feelings of the French, they bear the palm from all other nations in the extent and costliness of their New-year’s gifts. It has been estimated that the amount expended upon bon-bons and sweetmeats alone, for presents on New-year’s Day in Paris, exeeeds 20,0007. sterling; while the sale of jewelry and fancy articles in the first week in the year is computed at one-fourth of the sale during the twelve months. It is by no means uncommon for a Parisian of 8000 or 10,000 francs a-year to make presents on New-year’s Day which cost him a fifteenth part of his income.
At an early hour of the morning this interchange of visits and bon-bons is already in full activity, the nearest relations being first visited, until the furthest in blood and their friends and acquaintance have all had their calls. A dinner is given by some member of the family to all the rest, and the evening concludes, like Christmas Day, with cards, dancing, or other amusements.
In London, New-year’s Day is not observed by any public festivity; the only open demonstration of joy is the ringing of merry peals from the belfries of the numerous steeples late on the eve of the old year, until after the chimes of the clock have sounded its last hour.
We may have done well to drop what Prynne, in his Histrio-Mastix, calls ” a meere relique of Paganisme and idolatry, derived from the heathen Romans’ feast of two-faced Janus, which was spent in mummeries, stage plays, dancing, and such like interludes, wherein fiddlers and others acted lascivious effeminate parts, and went about the towns and cities in Women’s apparel;” but, however the celebration of New Year’s Day may have been disfigured in the earlier ages by Pagan associations and superstitious rites, nothing can be more truly Christian than to usher it in with every cheerful observance that may express gratitude towards Heaven, and promote a kindly and a social feeling among our friends and fellow-creatures.
Source: Festivals, games & amusements,
ancient & modern, 1831