As we teeter on the edge of a long and interesting year, we believe it behoves us to pause and guide our readers in reflecting on the transition between the old and new year, and its historical meaning. As every schoolboy knows the arbitrary marking of a new year as we currently celebrate it starts with Julius Caesar, who after dividing Gaul into three parts, decided to divide the year, thus creating his own calendar. This started with January, named after Janus, god of doors, who was conveniently fitted with two faces enabling him to look fore and aft simultaneously. Since 45 BC Europe has updated her calendar system, switching to the Julian 1.1 or “Gregorian” calendar, but New Year’s Eve is of undiminished importance. Just as Londoners listen out for the chimes of Big Ben, and New Yorkers await the dropping of the New Year’s Eve ball, Yorkies tend to aggregate round our own dear landmark the minster. Some of us might sing, or more likely hum, a verse of Burns’s Auld Lang Syne: the most popular song to which no one knows the words.
However, if you scratch the temporal surface you’ll find some quaint and peculiar customs. In Yorkshire first footers, the people who visit your house in the New Year bringing luck are called “lucky birds”. The luck-bringing capacity of said visitor seems to have hinged on his hair colour. In the main a dark haired first footer is preferred, possibly because Scandinavians are fair haired, and, historically at least, Vikings at your gate have heralded rather poor luck indeed. Everyone seems to agree that redheads are dreadful luck; an old prejudice, supposedly rooted in Judas’s being ginger.
Bothering people at home crops up in numerous festive traditions. At one time people might have expected to be visited by “mummers”: masked actors who would turn up at the majors houses in a village and perform some farcical, panto-esque plays (similar to but distinct from the mystery plays). These centred on rebirth, such as “The Old Tup” (as in Ram) or the Old Horse; in both cases the animal dies and is brought back to life; crude symbolism for winter death and predicted spring rebirth. Often these plays incorporate sword dances, a sort of Morris dance, peculiar to Yorkshire and the north east. These appear to have taken place on Christmas day and during the period up to New Year’s itself.
In some parts of Yorkshire girls were allowed in on the fun in the form of wassailing. Young girls would visit houses singing, rather imaginatively “Here We Come A-Wassailing”, with girls being given cakes, cheese, or coinage, rather like trick or treating. The girls would either carry a branch or a decorated doll in a box. The latter seems of unfathomable significance until one notes that in earlier times children carried an image of Christ carved in wax. Activities known as wassailing took, and take, place in other parts of the country but have an orchards and cider association. The word simply means good health in Anglo Saxon.
The decline of these quaint traditions is doubtless sad, and probably results from the loss of community spirit and an increasing sense of social incoherence. On the other hand not being harassed by tedious neighbours, dubious thespians and other vagrants, might best be considered something of a small mercy and a necessary cost of progress.
Happy New Year from all at One&Other.