The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

New Year in Great Britain

Category: Customs + Festivals

The celebration of New Year’s Eve is one of the oldest rites known to man. Even in primitive, ancient societies some sort of New Year ritual was celebrated, and the celebrations were surprisingly similar to our own — composed of about equal parts noise, song and hard drink. With the rise of Christianity the merriment was considerably toned down.

Julius Caesar had set January 1 as the starting date of the New Year, but six hundred years later the church proclaimed that the feast of the Annunciation — March 25 — would henceforth mark the beginning and for almost a thousand years this was the accepted New Year’s Day. Then, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII put it back to January | and that is what it has been ever since.

In the late Middle Ages, some of the religious character of the occasion began to be forgotten again and high jinks reappeared. This was particularly true in Scotland, where New Year’s Eve has always been one of the most important annual events. A number of Scottish New Year’s customs still endure from thoseearly times, although the Scottish custom — the singing of “Auld Lang Syne’’ at midnight — isa relatively new one, having been practiced for only about 175 years.

When the clock strikes twelve everybody stands in a circle crossing their arms and linking themwith those who are on either side and merrily joins in singing the rousing tune of Burn’s poem:

Should ’auld acquaintance be forgot

And never bro’t to mind?

Should’ auld acquaintance be forgot,

And days of auld lang syne?


For auld lang’ syne, my dear,

For auld lang syne,

We’ll tak’ a cup o’kindness yet

For auld lang syne.

And gie’s a hand, my trusty friend

And gie’s a hand o’thine,

We’ll tak’ a cup o’kindness yet,

For auld lang syne.

The oldest of the Scottish New Year’s practices is the passing of a flowing bowl, filled with hot wine spiced with cloves, nutmeg, mace, ginger and cinnamon, plus sugar, eggs, and roasted apples, at midnight.

The Scots also have a custom called first-footing — young men wandering from house to house after midnignt, visiting with their neighbours. The first young man to enter a house (traditionally dark, or it will be an unlucky year) is known as the first-foot. He has the right to kiss the girl who answers the door. It is considered the height of Highland hilarity to rave a crone come to the door instead of the expected bonnie ass.

In England, in spite of the Day’s symbolic significance, it has never ranked as high as a popular holiday as it does in Scotland and most other countries of the world.

The symbol of the incoming year is the New Year Babe. Children born on New Year’s Day have from time immemorial been regarded as harbingers of years of good fortune for the whole household.

« ||| »

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.