NEW YEAR’S DAY,
the first day of tho year, for many ages and in various parts of the world celebrated as a religious and social festival. With the post-biblical Jews the new year commenced and still commences with the autumnal month Tisri, the first day being celebrated by them with considerable ceremony.
The Romans made an especial holiday of it, offering sacrifices to Janus, whose principal festival occurred on this day, and taking care that all they thought, said, and did should be pure and favorable, since every thing was ominous for the occurrences of the whole year. They appeared in the streets in festive garments, exchanged kindly salutations, and gave to each other presents called strence, consisting of gilt dates, figs, honey cakes, and copper coins having on one side the double head of Janus and on the other a ship.
This custom of bestowing presents was made by some of the emperors an important source of their personal revenue, until modified by a decree of the emperor Claudius. The early Christian emperors however continued to receive them, notwithstanding they were condemned by the ecclesiastical councils on account of the pagan ceremonies at their presentation.
Prynne in his ” Ilistrio-Mastix,” referring to the hostility of the early church to any imitation among Christians of the Roman saturnalia, says: “The whole Catholick church appointed a solemn publike faste upon this our new yeare’s day, to bewail those heathenish entcrludes, sports, and lewd idolatrous practices, which had been used on it; prohibiting all Christians, under pain of excommunication, from observing the calends or first of January (which wee now call new yeare’s day) as holy, and from sending abroad new yeare’s gifts upon it (a custome now too frequent), it being a mere relique of paganisme and idolatry, derived from the heathen Komans’ feast of two-faced Janus, and a practice so execrable unto Christians, that not onely the wholo Catholicke church, but even the four famous councils of (here follows a long array of authorities) have positively prohibited the solemnization of new yeare’s day, and the sending abroad of new yeare’s gifts, under an anathema and excommunication.”
The bestowal of gifts upon new year’s day was not peculiar to the Romans. The druids distributed branches of the sacred mistletoe, cut with peculiar ceremonies, as new year’s gifts among the people; and the Saxons of the north, according to Bishop Stillingfleet, observed the festival with more than ordinary jollity and feasting, and by sending gifts to one another. In spite of the opposition of ecclesiastical councils, the practice continued through the middle ages; and among kings and their powerful vassals the interchange of presents was a distinguishing feature of the first day of the year. Henry III. of England is said to have extorted new year’s gifts, and Queen Elizabeth’s wardrobe and jewelry were probably almost wholly supplied from these annual contributions. It appears from the “Progresses and Processions” of her majesty, published by Nichols, that the lords spiritual and temporal of the realm, the chief officers of state, and the servants of the royal household down to the master cook, sergeant of the pastry, and dustman, were among the contributors to these largesses, which consisted of money, rioh wearing apparel, plate, jewels, trinkets, sweetmeats, and an infinite variety of other things. Dr. Drake says that, although the queen made returns to the new year’s gifts, in plate and other articles, she took care that the balance should be in her own favor. As late as 1692, as appears from the “Monthly Miscellany” for December of that year, the English nobility were accustomed, “every new year’s tide,” to ” send to the king a purse with gold in it.”
Under the Tudors and Stuarts new year’s gifts were given and received with mutual wishes of a happy new year among all conditions of people. An orange stuck with clover or a gilt nutmeg was a popular gift; tenants sent their landlords capons, and ladies received presents of gloves or pins, or in lieu thereto. a composition in money, whence tho terms ” glove money” and ” pin money.”
Brand in his ” Popular Antiquities” enumerates many ceremonies and superstitious practices observed by the English and Scottish peasantry on the first day of the year, which, together with the once almost universal bestowal of gifts, have very much declined. In England the ringing in the new year from the belfries of churches is now the only open demonstration of joy at the recurrence of the anniversary.
In Germany many ceremonies derived from old superstitions are in vogue; but throughout continental Europe, although the day is a universal holiday, congratulatory wishes have been generally substituted for the more substantial expressions of esteem formerly interchanged by friends.
In Paris and other large cities almost incredible sums are still expended in bonbons and similar articles for presents.
In the city of New York the day is made the occasion of social visits by gentlemen among the families of their acquaintance—a custom dating back almost to the settlement of the town by the Dutch, and which has been imitated with more or less success in other places in the United States.
Source: The new American cyclopædia: a popular dictionary of general knowledge, 1869