Celebrating the New Year is an ancient custom, but how people celebrate it is an ongoing evolution dating back centuries. During the Regency, and before, one tradition was to clean the house thoroughly, including ashes in the hearth, scraps, and rags, and even eating or discarding any perishable food in order to start the year fresh, discarding bad luck and inviting good luck.
A less vigorous tradition required a gathering of family in a circle while the head of the household opened the front door and bad doors at midnight to “usher out the old, and bring in the new,” with the Old Year leaving through the back and the New Year coming as a welcome friend in the front. The more superstitious probably viewed this as a way to usher out bad luck and invite good. Personally, I see it as a way to let out the warmth and let in the cold.
Among young women of marriageable age, a favored tradition was to try to be the first one to draw water from the well, known as “creaming the well.” The lucky woman to get the first bucket of water would marry that year, according to superstition. If she could get the young man of her desires to drink this favored water before the end of the day, she had a better chance that he’d propose. Other traditions included washing a cow’s udder in this water so the cow might give more milk in the coming year.
In some cultures, prior to the 18th century, Christmas was for parties and gatherings. People exchanged gifts on New Year’s Day.
A well-beloved tradition to bring in the New Year was singing Old Lang Syne, which menas the old long since, or days gone by. Originally a traditional Scottish song, the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, wrote down the lyrics and published it in 1796. This song caught on quickly and spread to much of the English-speaking world. Many now sing it at the stroke of midnight.
Our family’s New Year’s celebration this year included games and food with friends, a countdown, a kiss between couples, and singing this traditional song.
What are your favorite traditions to celebrate the New Year?