Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Celebrating the New Year

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.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas verses Happy Christmas

Recently, we had a discussion on my yahoo newsletter loop about the origins of “Happy Christmas” verses “Merry Christmas” as a holiday greeting in Britain. Regency researcher, Nancy M. (see her excellent website at http://www.susannaives.com/nancyregencyresearcher/) was kind enough to search Google books and concluded that, prior to the 1830s, “Merry Christmas” was the more popular salutation. The term “Merry Christmas” dates to at least 1565, when it appeared in The Hereford Municipal Manuscript:

And thus I comytt you to god, who send you a mery Christmas...

The phrase “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” appeared in a 1699 letter from Admiral Frances Hosier to Robert Smith, a storekeeper at the Deptford dockyards in Woolrich, England. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol solidified the phrase in 1843 when, at the end of the story, Ebenezer Scrooge wished Cratchet, “A merry Christmas, Bob!”

In terms of oral tradition, “Merry Christmas” was around in the 16th century West Country carol, “We wish you a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”

A little tougher to track is “Happy Christmas.” It isn’t an entirely British phrase, however. In 1823, New Yorker Clement Clark Moore wrote the classic Christmas poem, A Visit From St. Nick/Twas the Night Before Christmas which concludes with:

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

(It is interesting to note that, in some later editions, the phrase was changed to “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.” For what reason, no one is sure.)

By the late 19th -- early 20th centuries, “Happy Christmas” had become the more popular phrase in England. Perhaps for the same reason Queen Elizabeth II prefers it. “Merry Christmas” implies drunkenness and a bubbling over of festivity.

The association of merriment with Christmas can be found as far back as Sir Thomas Elyot’s 1548 Dictionary:

.…as the vulgare people saie, Reste you mery.

That sentiment is echoed in the Christmas carol, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” first published in William Sandys’ Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern in 1833.

The word “merry” didn’t start out associated with revelry. It derives from the Anglo-Saxon word myrige which meant pleasant and agreeable rather than jolly. Or perhaps Happy Christmas gained in popularity for the simple reason that greetings in general begin with the word “happy” – happy birthday, happy holiday, happy new year. To say “Happy Christmas and a Happy New Year” just doesn’t roll off the tongue quite like the other. But as a stand-alone phrase, Happy Christmas is consistent with long-standing salutatory customs.

The First Christmas Card

As the above image demonstrates, the first commercial Christmas card sported the phrase, “Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year.” It made its appearance the same year Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published. Sir Henry Cole, a British civil servant who had no time to pen personal greetings to family and friends, commissioned the English painter, John C. Horsley to create the triptych card. One thousand of them were printed in black and white, then hand-colored. (Horsley’s card was based on the 18th century custom of schoolboys creating “Christmas pieces” for their families. This elaborately decorated stationery sported written messages that showcased the boys’ penmanship.)

But no matter which phrase you prefer—the one another Cole by the name of Nat so aptly crooned in 1946:

Although it’s been said

many times, many ways,

Merry Christmas to you.”

Or the great John Lennon sang in 1971:

And so happy Christmas

we hope you have fun

The near and the dear ones

The old and the young…

I'd like to wish you and yours all the best of the season. And God bless us, every one!