New Year traditions: ginger and coal

New Year traditions in today’s UK tend to go like this: people crowd into pubs/parties; drink too much; sing an obscure Scottish poem while linking arms; shout out the numbers 10 to one backwards; shout ‘happy New Year’; kiss/get kissed by strangers…

 Then stand around two minutes later, thinking: “Now what do we do?”

As well as Robert Burns’ poem, if you are anywhere in the English-speaking world, there is bound to be some involvement of bagpipes.

Scotland made January 1 New Year’s Day in 1599 /1600. Well ahead of the nations of the UK adopting the Gregorian calendar in 1752. Under its predecessor, the Julian calendar, New Year’s Day was March 25. 


As a child, I remember the New Year tradition of ‘first-footing’. The first person through the door on New Year’s Day was supposed to bring good luck to the house: they were also supposed to be a tall, dark stranger, and to bring a piece of coal. We had gas heating, but we did have a piece of coal, salvaged from a disused coal bunker. Although it was probably anthracite, which may or may not have been ‘cheating’.

The Westmorland Gazette, in January 1821, looked north to report on New Year traditions. It quoted the Glasgow Journal’s account of how in that city:

‘men, women and children sallied out into the streets’ as the clocks struck midnight. “…with their bottles, shouting and singing, and instantly all was bustle and activity, mirth and dissipation’.

Shops were advertising whisky at 2d a gill, malt whisky at 3d a gill, common rum at 3 1/2d a gill. This was apparently: ‘uncommonly cheap’, which helped ‘to carry first-footing to a great length on this occasion’,

New Year traditions in days of old

The Gazette reflected, in January 1837, on New Year traditions in ‘days of old’. 

‘Among our hardy ancestors, it was customary, on the eve of this day, to assemble round the blazing hearth and there, in the spicy wassail-bowl, to drown every feeling of animosity.’

Everyone drank from the bowl and passed it on: ‘while song and mirth brought in the infance year; a relic of which is the still prevalent custom of dancing the old year out and the new year in.’

‘Young women also carried this hot spiced ale from door to door, singing some pastoral verses, and in return for a sip of their beverage, received small presents.’

Which seems a good return on one sip of mulled ale!

The Westmorland Gazette says it was also an ancient custom to give New Year gifts to friends, benefactors, the poor, and the king/queen.

‘The giving of presents, termed New Year’s gifts, accompanied by wishing a Happy New Year, is the most peculiar feature of this day.’

Beware what you wish for

In January 1837, William IV was still King of England. Though if he celebrated the New Year, it wasn’t to prove a great one for him: he died on June 20. The point, however, is that this was pre-Queen Victoria and pre-Christmas as we celebrate it today.

Gifts to your monarch consisted of fruit, flowers, silver, books, or fancy articles. You can find a list of New Year presents given to Queen Elizabeth I in 1577-78 here .

Seems Good Queen Bess got a lot of handkerchiefs, and a lot of pots of ginger. 

One case where those who couldn’t think what to get and gave her money instead were probably appreciated more. Even if she liked ginger.

New year traditions in Cumberland

And back to New Year traditions in Cumberland… according to William Hutchinson’s ‘History’:

‘On the eve of the new year, the children go from house to house, singing a ditty, which craves the bounty “they were want to have in King Edward’s days”.’

Sounds like carol singers: only the sort who demand figgy pudding (ok, most juvenile carol singers today can’t get beyond the first verse of We Wish You a Merry Christmas!).

Hutchinson says:

“The donation is two pence or a pie at every house. We have to lament that so negligent are the people of the morals of youth that great part of this annual salutation is obscene and offensive to chaste ears.”

Happy New Year indeed!