I have written in this blog before about how I don't particularly like New Year's Day. As I see it, it has always been a rather drab day. In American society we tend to celebrate the New Year for the most part on New Year's Eve. When New Year's Day itself arrives, then, there is little more to do than to recover from hangovers, watch college football, or watch one of the many marathons on one of the cable channels. This does not impress me as a good way to start the New Year.
Too, I must admit that I also dislike New Year's Day as, in American society, it is definitely the end of the holidays. As I have often complained in this blog, many end the Yuletide with December 25. The vast majority of those who continue to observe the holidays after Christmas Day will end them with New Year's Day. This would not be so bad if it wasn't for the fact that it seems to me that the holidays end with a whimper rather than a bang. After all, as I pointed out,there is very little celebrating done on New Year's Day.
Of course, in the days when the Twelve Days of Christmas were still observed, New Year's Day was very much a part of the Yuletide. In fact, until the thirteenth century the New Year was considered to begin on December 25, Christmas Day, in England and Germany. There can be no doubt that this was simply a continuation of the New Year's celebration among the Germanic peoples, the pagan festival called Geol (modern English Yule) among the Anglo-Saxons and Jól among the Old Norse speakers being considered the start of the New Year. In fact, the Venerable Bede states that the Anglo-Saxons observed it as such in his De Temporum Ratione. It is from the Anglo-Saxon festival of Geol that we draw many of our Christmas traditions. Even after January 1 was established as the beginning of the New Year, it was very much a part of the Christmas season, which lasted from the evening of December 24 to the day of January 6. Among some Europeans it was even observed as the Feast of Christ's Circumcision.
It is for this reason that New Year's Day had actual traditions linked to it in many European countries. In Scotland the evening of December 31 marked the beginning of Hoganmay, which continues until January 1 or sometimes even January 2. As might be expected, Hoganmay does involve the drinking generally associated with New Year's Eve celebrations, although it also involves other customs as well. On New Year's Eve many parts of Scotland observe New Year's Eve with various customs involving fire. In Stonehaven in Kincardineshire New Year's Eve is observed with fireball swinging. When the Old Town House bell marks the New Year, the fireball swingers walk down the High Street and back. On January 11 (the first day of the year according to the old Julian calendar) in Burghead in Moray they observe the burning of the clavie. The clavie is essentially a bonfire made from casks which have been split in two.
Other Hoganmay customs focus as much on New Year's Day as they do New Year's Eve. Featsts of steak pie or stew, involving drinking, singing, dancing, and storytelling begin on New Year's Eve and last into New Year's Day. Another custom observed on New Year's Day was that of first footing. This is a custom whereby the first person to enter a home brings gifts (usually salt, coal, shortbread, whisky, and fruit cake to those living there. The first-foot must be a dark haired male for the coming year to be lucky, and must not be a resident of the house or a guest who was present there at the stroke of midnight.
For centuries gift giving also formed a part of English New Year customs. Oranges, pins, gloves, and even money were given as gifts on New Year's Day in England for centuries, only declining with the 20th century. At one time on New Year's Day children in England would go from house to house singing songs (carolling, I guess one would say) and would be rewarded with candy, apples, mince pies, and even money.
Sadly, such customs are not found here in the United States, although we are not without New Year's Day customs. Here in the South it is traditional to eat black eyed peas on New Year's Day for luck in the coming year. Often the black eyed peas are served with greens and cornbread. For many Southerners ham is the meat best eaten with black eyed peas. Beyond the Southern customs of eating black eyed peas on New Year's Day, there is also the custom of making New Year resolutions, also found throughout Europe. Some trace the custom back to Babylon, although I can't see an ancient, Middle Eastern country having that much impact on Northern Europe. Instead, I think the custom of New Year's resolutions is another tradition taken from the ancient Germanic festival of Geol, as the Anglo-Saxons called it. According to Heimskringla, at Jól the sacrificial boar was brought out and the men would make oaths while touching him. Afterward the boar was slaughtered as part of the Jól feast. It seems more likely to me that the custom of resolutions stems from the custom of making oaths at Geol or Jól, than from some ancient and distant Babylonian custom.
Regardless, looking at the various customs observed on New Year's Day at different times and different places, it seems to me that New Year's Day is a bit of a disappointment when it comes to the holiday season. At one time, New Year's Day fell in the middle of the Twelve Day's of Christmas. Because of this it was part and parcel of the Christmas celebration. Even if one regards New Year's Day as the end of the holidays, this would be an argument for observing it with a bit more celebration. The holidays have always been my favourite time of year, and I must admit I have always thought we ended them with a bit of a whimper than a bang. The holidays should go out on a high note. Rather than celebrating it recovering from hangovers and watching college football, perhaps it should be celebrated with a bit more panache.