Sobriety, royal presents and Victorian-era musings on failure: an unexpected history of New Year

Today, we associate New Year’s Eve with raucous and optimistic parties, followed the next day by hungover resolutions to change our ways in the months ahead. But New Year celebrations haven’t always been so. James Daybell and Sam Willis offer some curious historical facts to see us into 2020…

Elizabeth I preferred thoughtful new year gifts suited to her own tastes such as cloth, personal jewellery and trinkets. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The traditional history of New Year is all about making decisions to be kinder, more caring, more generous, to eat less, watch what you drink, to quit smoking, to exercise more, to take up a hobby, read more, or to attempt a healthier work-life balance. At Histories of the Unexpected, however, we think the subject of New Year really comes alive if you take an unexpected approach to its history. Yes, promises, dieting and charity all have fascinating histories, but the history of New Year is also all about power, sobriety, paranoia, migration and failure…

 

The traditional history of New Year is all about making decisions to be kinder, more caring, more generous, to eat less, watch what you drink, to quit smoking, to exercise more, to take up a hobby, read more, or to attempt a healthier work-life balance. At Histories of the Unexpected, however, we think the subject of New Year really comes alive if you take an unexpected approach to its history. Yes, promises, dieting and charity all have fascinating histories, but the history of New Year is also all about power, sobriety, paranoia, migration and failure…

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Power in Tudor England

At the Tudor court, New Year was intimately connected to power. The long-standing custom of courtiers giving gifts to the monarch on New Year’s Day was a ritualised and lavish public ceremony that took place at the heart of the Tudor court, in the royal presence chamber. The master of the Jewel House and his assistants carefully recorded gifts both given to and received from high-ranking nobles and members of the royal household. These details were transferred to ‘gift rolls’, sheets of paper or membranes of vellum stuck or stitched together to form a single document measuring up to 11 feet in length, and which were then rolled up and stored in the Jewel House.

One of the most intimate depictions of gift-giving at the court of Henry VIII survives in a 1538 letter from John Husee, the court agent of Lord Lisle, the lord deputy of Calais. In it he notes, “The King stood leaning against the cupboard, receiving all things; and Mr Tuke at the end of the same cupboard penning all things that were presented.” This was a remarkably personal political system that brought courtiers into direct contact with the monarch.

In 1585, the courtier Elizabeth Wingfield counselled the countess of Shrewsbury that gifts of money to Elizabeth I would be “ill liked”. That’s because the queen preferred thoughtful gifts suited to her own tastes such as cloth, personal jewellery and trinkets. These were far more likely to please the monarch and lead to advancement. Elizabeth’s loyal spymaster and principal secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, clearly understood this. In 1585, he presented the queen with a sumptuously decorated “French gown of russet satin flourished with leaves of silver bound about with a passamayne [or lace] of Venice gold with pendant sleeves lined with cloth of silver”.

Sir Francis Walsingham
Sir Francis Walsingham understood Queen Elizabeth I’s preference for personal gifts at new year. (Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Sobriety

New Year’s Eve is traditionally a time of merriment, associated with drunken and raucous celebration. But this is not everyone’s cup of tea, and it was clearly not how the English clergyman John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, thought that people should celebrate the turning of the year. In 1740, as an antidote to this debauchery, Wesley instituted watch night services (also known as covenant renewal services), to be held on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day.

John Wesley
Theologian, evangelist and founder of Methodism, John Wesley. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Among Christians, this time of year was commonly a period for reflection, for looking back at how one had lived one’s life in the previous 12 months and resolving to do better going forward. The new service allowed Methodists to do this in a more structured way, with participants singing hymns and reading from scriptures. In The Religious Life of London (1870), James Ewing Ritchie noted of the sect: “In the institution of the watch-night it boldly struck out a new path for itself. In publicly setting apart the last fleeting moments of the old year and the first of the new to penitence, and special prayer, and stirring appeal, and fresh resolve, it has set an example which other sects are preparing to follow.” The popularity of the watch night service spread among evangelical churches, and such services are commonplace in the USA among African-American congregations today.

Paranoia

For millennia, all human societies were entirely dependent on the unpredictable climate for health and welfare. This meant that harvests were celebrated, while the New Year was anticipated with a certain degree of uncertainty and fear. This helps to explain the high degree of paranoia visible in folk traditions around the New Year, as people sought to influence their fortunes in the coming year by controlling their behaviour in the present.

A long-established English folk tradition maintains that, “What is done on New Year’s Day will be done all the year.” An instance in the West Country in 1926 demonstrated the power of this superstitious belief when labourers refused to work on New Year’s Day “lest it should result in hard work all the year long”. Similarly, in Devon, pea soup was only ever made with whole peas on New Year’s Day and not split peas, as split peas would “split the luck” for the coming year.

Farm workers in southern England during harvest time
Farm workers in southern England during harvest time, c1925. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Migration

The Chinese have a long and fascinating relationship with New Year. During the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) five separate festivals were celebrated: a fiscal New Year in the autumn; the winter solstice in December; a people’s New Year in January; a lunar New Year also in January; and a seasonal New Year in spring. Today, however, Chinese New Year has become almost entirely focused on the period around just one of those five festivals, the lunar New Year, in an extended celebration that lasts for more than a month.

One of the most ancient traditions of this New Year is to reunite with one’s family, as western cultures do at Christmas. Since the 1970s, Chinese society has radically changed as huge cities have grown and drawn millions of workers out of the countryside – in a similar fashion to the urbanisation experienced in the western world during the industrial revolution. A spectacular improvement in transport networks throughout China in the same period now means that, during the lunar New Year celebrations, an estimated three billion journeys are made in what is considered the world’s largest annual migration. So many people leave Beijing that the city’s mean temperature actually falls.

A light show in the Forbidden City, 2019
During the lunar New Year celebrations, an estimated three billion journeys are made in China. (Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP) (Photo credit should read NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images)

Victorian failure

For the Victorians, the New Year was all about failure. The beginning of January was a time to take stock, to look back at the old year, for individuals to “review more or less carefully and impartially the history of the past year as it concerned themselves”, and remember their “mistakes” and “regrets”. This introspective look at one’s recent past – in true Scrooge-like fashion – was accompanied by “resolutions of amendment and promises of avoiding habits and customs that have been injurious”.

Yet despite all these good intentions, such high-minded notions were usually fleeting and doomed to failure, something that was recognised at the time. Indeed, an editorial in the Worcester Journal of 6 January 1883 stated, “It unfortunately happens that New Year’s Day resolutions are often of the most transitory kind, and they pass away almost with the mists of the morning on which they are formed.” The editorial offers the idea it would be better not to make any resolutions “for there is nothing so destructive of self-respect as the abandonment of purposes for self-discipline which had been deliberately formed and openly avowed”.

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James Daybell is professor of early modern British history at the University of Plymouth. Sam Willis is a historian, writer and broadcaster who specialises in maritime history. The duo are the authors and presenters of the Histories of the Unexpected books, podcast and live show.