Named for the Roman god Janus who wore two faces—one looking backward and one forward—the month known as Januarius is a time to reflect on what has gone before as well as to contemplate the future. For most of recorded history the new year occurred around the spring equinox, when life returned to the land. With the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1792, however, January 1st became the day upon which Britain’s new legal year as well as the secular one began. (It’s interesting to note that James VI reconciled the two for Scotland in 1600.)
Until the 18th century, gift giving in the British Isles occurred on New Year’s Day not Christmas. This custom evolved from the Roman practice of bestowing strenae on that day. In 747 B.C., Tatius entered Rome in triumph on New Year’s Day and was given branches of vervain—the herb of grace—cut from the goddess Strenia's sacred grove. He declared that, henceforth, Jan 1st would be celebrated with the exchange of gifts.
When the Romans occupied Britain, they brought this tradition with them. Over time, however, the practice became an exercise in bribery. Henry III was said to routinely extort gifts from his nobles. In 1249, the royal coffers were empty and Parliament refused to grant him any aid. He solicited “loans” from every person who came before him.
On New Year’s Day in 1561, Elizabeth I received more than £1262 in cash which she spent on clothing and jewels. In 1578, she received silver plate weighing a total of 5882 ounces. (An ounce of silver was worth about 5 shillings during her reign. If melted down, the plate would have fetched at least £1470.)
While British monarchs and their nobles exchanged New Year’s gifts, servants received food, clothing and money from their masters. In return, they gave the lord of the manor a capon. Wives received money for their personal use. When pins were invented in the 16th century, the new technology became an instant hit with the ladies. Money given by husbands for the purchase of them was called “pin money.” The term eventually came to mean any disposable cash.
Gloves were another popular gift. “Glove money” became synonymous with bribery after Sir Thomas More received a pair with gold coins tucked inside from a Mrs. Croaker. Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor had found in her favor in a chancery case. More kept the gloves but returned the money. “It would be against good manners to forsake a gentlewoman’s new-years-gift,” he wrote, “and I accept the gloves; their lining you will be pleased otherwise to bestow.”
In Scotland, the festival celebrating the new year is called Hogmanay – a word derived from the Anglo-Saxon Haleg Monath (Holy Month), and the Gaelic, oge maiden (new morning). On New Year’s Eve, the Scots and folks of northern England practiced a tradition called "first-footing." The nature of the first visitor to set foot across the threshold after midnight, December 31st was believed to affect the family's fortunes. A tall, handsome dark-haired male stranger was preferred, and the shape of the fellow's feet was important. High-insteps were ideal so that "water will run under" -- a euphemism for bad luck flowing past. A flat-footed fellow was thought to bring bad luck.
An empty-handed "first footer" was a bad omen, no doubt a hold-over from Roman times. In the old days, the “first footer’s” usual gifts were a piece of coal (to ensure the house was always warm), bread (so the occupants never went hungry), and a bottle of whisky. The "first footer" entered by the front door, and no one spoke until he wished the occupants a happy new year. When he left by the back door, he took with him all the old year's troubles and sorrows.
"Creaming the well" was another new year's tradition practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries. "Cream" was the first water drawn from a well or spring in the new year, and was believed to possess curative properties. In Scotland, farmers sometimes washed the udders of cows with it. And young women raced to be the first to draw the "cream" because possession meant marriage within the coming year.
In all these cases, New Year’s Day was considered significant with regard to predicting good fortune. One unusual custom was to hook a flat cake (pancake) on the horns of a cow and sing:
Here’s a health to thee, Brownie,
And to thy white horn,
God send thy master a good crop of corn.
Thee eat thy cake and I’ll drink my beer,
God send thy master a happy New Year.
If the flat cake fell off in front of the cow, it meant good luck for her owner. If it fell behind, bad luck.
In Hertfordshire, farmers followed a custom thought to be rooted in the votive offerings by Romans to Ceres, the goddess of grain. At dawn on New Year's Day, a hawthorn bush was burned n the fields to ensure good luck and bountiful crops. Pieces of hawthorn were woven into crowns and hung in the house.