First-Footing in Edinburgh
(From Robert Chambers, A Book of Days, 1869)
New Year’s Day Festivities
‘Long ere the lingering dawn of that blithe morn
Which ushers in the year, the roosting cock,
Flapping his wings, repeats his larnun shrill;
But on that morn no busy flail obeys
His rousing call; no sounds but sounds of joy
Salute the year—the first-foot’s entering step,
That sudden on the floor is welcome heard,
Ere blushing maids have braided up their hair;
The laugh, the hearty kiss, the good new year
Pronounced with honest warmth. In village, grange,
And borough town, the steaming flagon, borne
From house to house, elates the poor man’s heart,
And makes him feel that life has still its joys.
The aged and the young, man, woman, child,
Unite in social glee; even stranger dogs,
Meeting with bristling back, soon lay aside
Their snarling aspect, and in sportive chase,
Excursive scour, or wallow in the snow.
With sober cheerfulness, the grandam eyes
Her offspring round her, all in health and peace;
And, thankful that she’s spared to see this day
Return once more, breathes low a secret prayer,
That God would shed a blessing on their heads.’
As New-Year’s Day, the first of January bears a prominent place in the popular calendar. It has ever been a custom among northern nations to see the old year out and the new one in, with the highest demonstrations of merriment and conviviality. To but a few does it seem to occur that the day is a memorandum of the subtraction of another year from the little sum of life; with the multitude, the top feeling is a desire to express good wishes for the next twelvemonths’ experience of their friends, and be the subject of similar benevolence on the part of others, and to see this interchange of cordial feeling take place, as far as possible, in festive circumstances. It is seldom that an English family fails to sit up on the last night of the year till twelve o’clock, along with a few friends, to drink a happy New Year to each other over a cheerful glass. Very frequently, too, persons nearly related but living apart, dine with each other on this day, to keep alive and cultivate mutual good feeling. It cannot be doubted that a custom of this kind must tend to obliterate any shades of dissatisfaction or jealous anger, that may have arisen during the previous year, and send the kindred onward through the next with renewed esteem and regard. To the same good purpose works the old custom of giving little presents among friends on this day:
‘The King of Light, father of aged Time,
Hath brought about that day which is the prime,
To the slow-gliding months, when every eye
Wears symptoms of a sober jollity.’
Charles Lamb had a strong appreciation of the social character of New-Year’s Day. He remarks that no one of whatever rank can regard it with indifference. ‘Of all sounds of all bolts,’ says he, ‘most solemn and touching is the peal which rings out the old year. I never hear it without a gathering up of my mind to a concentration of all the images that have been diffused over the past twelvemonth; all I have done or suffered, performed or neglected, in that regretted time. I begin to know its worth as when a person dies. It takes a personal colour; nor was it a poetical flight in a contemporary, when he exclaimed:
“I saw the skirts of the departing year.”‘
One could wish that the genial Ella had added something in recommendation of resolutions of improvement of the year to come, for which Now-Year’s Day is surely a most appropriate time. Every first of January that we arrive at, is an imaginary milestone on the turnpike track of human life: at once a resting-place for thought and meditation, and a starting point for fresh exertion in the performance of our journey. The man who does not at least propose to himself to be better this year than he was last, must be either very good or very bad indeed! And only to propose to be better, is something; if nothing else, it is an acknowledgment of our need to be so, which is the first step towards amendment. But, in fact, to propose to oneself to do well, is in some sort to do well, positively; for there is no such thing as a stationary point in human endeavours; he who is not worse today than he was yesterday, is better; and he who is not better, is worse.’
The merrymakings of New-Year’s Eve and New-Year’s Day are of very ancient date in England. The head of the house assembled his family around a bowl of spiced ale, comically called lamb’s wool, from which he drank their health; then passed it to the rest, that they might drink too. The word that passed amongst them was the ancient Saxon phrase, Wass hael; that is, To your health. Hence this came to be recognised as the Wassail or Wassel Bowl. The poorer class of people carried a bowl adorned with ribbons round the neighbourhood, begging for something wherewith to obtain the means of filling it, that they too might enjoy wassail as well as the rich. In their compotations, they had songs suitable to the occasion, of which a Gloucestershire example has been preserved:
Wassail! wassail! over the town,
Our toast it is white, our ale it is brown:
Our bowl it is made of the maplin tree,
We be good fellows all; I drink to thee.
Here’s to [The name of some horse] and to his right ear,
God send our maister a happy New Year;
A happy New Year as e’er he did see—
With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.
Here’s to [The name of another horse], and to his right eye,
God send our mistress a good Christmas pie
A good Christmas pie as e’er I did see—
With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.
Here’s to Filpail, and her long tail,
God send our measter us never may fail
Of a cup of good beer; I pray you draw near,
And then you shall hear our jolly wassail.
Be here any maids, I suppose here be some;
Sure they will not let young men stand on the cold stone;
Sing hey 0 maids, come troll back the pin,
And the fairest maid in the house, let us all in.
Come, butler, come bring us a bowl of the best:
I hope your soul in heaven may rest:
But if you do bring us a bowl of the small,
Then down fall butler, bowl, and all.’
What follows is an example apparently in use amongst children:
Here we come a wassailing,
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a wandering,
So fair to be seen.
Chorus. Love and joy come to you,
And to your wassel too,
And God send you a happy New Year,
A New Year,
And God send you a happy New Year!
Our wassel cup is made of rosemary-tree,
So is your beer of the best barley.
We are not daily beggars,
That beg from door to door;
But we are neighbours’ children,
Whom you have seen before.
Call up the butler of this house,
Put on his golden ring,
Let him bring us up a glass of beer
vAnd the better we shall sing.
We have got a little purse,
Made of stretching leather skin,
We want a little of your money
To line it well within.
Bring us out a table,
And spread it with a cloth;
Bring us out a mouldy cheese,
And some of your Christmas loaf.
God bless the master of this house,
Likewise the mistress too,
And all the little children,
That round the table go!
Good master and mistress,
While you’re sitting by the fire,
Pray think of us poor children,
Who are wandering in the mire.
Chorus. Love and joy come to you, &c.
The custom of wassail at the New Year was kept up in the monasteries as well as in private houses. In front of the abbot, at the upper end of the refectory table, was placed the mighty bowl styled in their language Poculum Caritatis, and from it the superior drank to all, and all drank in succession to each other. The corporation feasts of London still preserve a custom that affords a reflex of that of the wassail bowl. A double-handled flagon full of sweetened and spiced wine being handed to the master, or other person presiding, he drinks standing to the general health, as announced by the toastmaster; then passes it to his neighbour on the left hand, who drinks standing to his next neighbour, also standing, and so on it goes, till all have drunk. Such is the well-known ceremony of the Loving Cup.
[Receipt for Making the Wassailbowl – Simmer a small quantity of the following spices in a teacupful of water, viz.:—Cardamums, cloves, nutmeg, mace, ginger, cinnamon, and coriander. When done, put the spice to two, four, or six bottles of port, sherry, or madeira, with one pound and a half of fine loaf sugar (pounded) to four bottles, and set all on the fire in a clean bright saucepan; meanwhile, have yolks of 12 and the whites of 6 eggs well whisked up in it. Then, when the spiced and sugared wine is a little warm, take out one teacupful; and so on for three or four cups; after which, when it boils, add the whole of the remainder, pouring it in gradually, and stirring it briskly all the time, so as to froth it. The moment a fine froth is obtained, toss in 12 fine soft roasted apples, and send it up hot. Spices for each bottle of wine:—10 grains of mace, 46 grains of cloves, 37 grains of cardamums, 28 grains of cinnamon, 12 grains of nutmeg, 48 grains of ginger, 49 grains of coriander seeds.—Mark Lane Express.]
Till very few years ago in Scotland, the custom of the wassail bowl at the passing away of the old year might he said to be still in comparative vigour. On the approach of twelve o’clock, a hot pint was prepared—that is, a kettle or flagon full of warm, spiced, and sweetened ale, with an infusion of spirits. When the clock had struck the knell of the departed year, each member of the family drank of this mixture ‘A good health and a happy New Year and many of them’ to all the rest, with a general hand-shaking, and perhaps a dance round the table, with the addition of a song to the tune of Hey tuttie taitic:
‘Weel may we a’ be,
Ill may we never see,
Here’s to the king
And the gude companie!’ &c.
The elders of the family would then most probably sally out, with the hot kettle, and bearing also a competent provision of buns and short-bread, or bread and cheese, with the design of visiting their neighbours, and interchanging with them the same cordial greetings. If they met by the way another party similarly bent, whom they knew, they would stop and give and take sips from their respective kettles. Reaching the friend’s house, they would enter with vociferous good wishes, and soon send the kettle a-circulating. If they were the first to enter the house since twelve o’clock, they were deemed as the first-foot; and, as such, it was most important, for luck to the family in the coming year, that they should make their entry, not empty-handed, but with their hands full of cakes and bread and cheese; of which, on the other hand, civility demanded that each individual in the house should partake.
To such an extent did this custom prevail in Edinburgh in the recollection of persons still living, that, according to their account, the principal streets were more thronged between twelve and one in the morning than they usually were at midday. Much innocent mirth prevailed, and mutual good feelings were largely promoted. An unlucky circumstance, which took place on the 1st January of 1812, proved the means of nearly extinguishing the custom. A small party of reckless boys formed the design of turning the innocent festivities of firstfootinq to account for purposes of plunder. They kept their counsel well. No sooner had the people come abroad on the principal thoroughfares of the Old Town, than these youths sallied out in small bands, and commenced the business which they had undertaken.
Their previous agreement was, to look out for the white neckcloths,—such being the best mark by which they could distinguish in the dark individuals likely to carry any property worthy of being taken. A great number of gentlemen were thus spoiled of their watches and other valuables. The least resistance was resented by the most brutal maltreatment. A policeman, and a young man of the rank of a clerk in Leith, died of the injuries they had received. An affair so singular, so uncharacteristic of the people among whom it happened, produced a widespread and lasting feeling of surprise. The outrage was expiated by the execution of three of the youthful rioters on the chief scene of their wickedness; but from that time, it was observed that the old custom of going about with the hot pint—the ancient wassail —fell off.
A gentleman of Preston has communicated to a popular publication that for many years past he has been in the habit of calling on a friend, an aged lady, at an early hour of New-Year’s Day, being by her own desire, as he is a fair-complexioned person, and therefore assumed to be of good omen for the events of the year. On one occasion, he was prevented from attending to his old friend’s request, and her first caller proved to be a dark-complexioned man; in consequence of which there came that year sickness, trouble, and commercial disaster.
In the parish of Berlen, near Snodland, in the county of Kent, are the remains of the old mansion of Groves, originally the property of a family named Hawks. On part of this house being pulled down in the latter part of the eighteenth century, there was found an oak beam supporting the chimney, which presented an antique carving exactly represented in the engraving at the head of this article. The words Wass hell and Drinc hello leave no doubt that the bowl in the centre was a representation of the wassail bowl of the time when the house was built, probably the sixteenth century. The two birds on the bowl are hawks—an allusion to the name of the family which originally possessed the mansion.
“The wassail bowle,’ says Warton, ‘is Shakespeare’s Gossip’s Bowl in the Midsummer Night’s Dream. The composition was ale, nutmeg, sugar, toast, and roasted crabs or apples.’ The word is interpreted by Verstegan as wase hale—that is, grow or become well. It came in time to signify festivity in general, and that of rather an intemperate kind. A wassail candle was a largo candle used at feasts.
First-footing in Edenbrugh
There was in Scotland a first footing independent of the hot pint. It was a time for some youthful friend of the family to steal to the door, in the hope of meeting there the young maiden of his fancy, and obtaining the privilege of a kiss, as her first-foot. Great was the disappointment on his part, and great the joking among the family, if through accident or plan, some half-withered aunt or ancient grand-dame came to receive him instead of the blooming Jenny.
It may safely be said that New-Year’s Day has hitherto been observed in Scotland with. a heartiness nowhere surpassed. It almost appears as if. by a sort of antagonism to the general gravity of the people, they were impelled to break out in a half-mad merriment on this day. Every face was bright with smiles; every hand ready with the grasp of friendship. All stiffness arising from age, profession, and rank, gave way. The soberest felt entitled to take a license on that special day. Reunions of relatives very generally took place over the festive board, and thus many little family differences were obliterated. At the pre-sent time, the ancient practices are somewhat decayed; yet the First of January is far from being reduced to the level of other days.
A grotesque manorial custom is described as being kept up in the reign of Charles II, in connection with Hilton in Staffordshire. There existed in that house a hollow brass image, about a foot high, representing a man kneeling in an indecorous posture. It was known all over the country as Jack of Hilton. There were two apertures, one very small at the mouth, another about two-thirds of an inch in diameter at the back, and the interior would hold rather more than four pints of water, ‘which, when sot to a strong fire, evaporates after the same manner as in an Ãƒu2020olipile, and vents itself at the mouth in a constant blast, blowing the fire so strongly that it is very audible, and makes a sensible impression in that part of the fire where the blast lights.’
Now the custom was this. An obligation lay upon the lord of the adjacent manor of Essington, every New-Year’s Day, to bring a goose to Hilton, and drive it three times round the hall fire, which Jack of Hilton was all the time blowing by the discharge of his steam. He was then to carry the bird into the kitchen and deliver it to the cook; and when it was dressed, he was further to carry it in a dish to the table of his lord paramount, the lord of Hilton, receiving in return a dish of meat for his own mess.
At Coventry, if not in other places throughout England, it is customary to eat what are called God-cakes on New-Year’s Day. They are of a triangular shape, of about half an inch thick, and filled with a kind of mince-meat. There are halfpenny ones cried through the street; but others of much greater price–even it is said to the value of a pound—are used by the upper classes.