Monday, January 01, 2024

Customs of New Year’s Day and Twelfth Night

Lost in Translation, Part IV

In this last entry of this four-part series, we look at non-liturgical and paraliturgical customs for the New Year and the last night of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and we conclude with some thoughts on the meaning of these often strange topsy-turvy customs.

Feast of the Circumcision
In compliance with the Old Law, Jesus was circumcised eight days after He was born. Once December 25 was fixed as the feast day celebrating Jesus’ birth, January 1 became the day to commemorate His circumcision. There is a slightly dolorous note in remembering the first time that Jesus Christ shed blood for humanity (and as a baby, no less), but the note fit in well with the Christian lament over pagan revelries. Even before the feast of the Circumcision, early Christians observed January 1 as a day of fasting and penance in opposition to the revelries of their pagan counterparts.
But because the circumcision was also the occasion when Jesus was formally given His holy name and made a member of the Holy Family, it is difficult to resist an impulse to celebrate. Over time, this impulse (combined with the joy of a new year and the close of the Christmas Octave) prevailed, and Christian customs grew as festive as the pagan, perhaps more so. Here are a few highlights.
Feast of Fools, 14th c.
Feast of Fools
In the eleventh century, the Catholic Church instituted special feast days for the ranks of the clergy: St. Stephen’s Day (December 26) was for deacons, St. John’s Day (December 27) for priests, Holy Innocents’ Day (December 28) for choir boys, and the Circumcision (January 1) for subdeacons. The Feast of Fools first emerged out of the subdeacons’ feast day on January 1. In France, where the practice was the most popular, a Bishop of Fools was chosen by lot from among the subdiaconate (and later the peasantry), draped in pontifical regalia, and allowed to preside over the recitation of the Divine Office. Practical jokes were played on the Fool and vice versa. The Feast of Fools soon came to take on different forms in different places. In England, the head fool was known as the Lord of Misrule and in Scotland as the Abbot of Unreason; he was placed in charge of the often wild revelries throughout the Twelve Days. Although the upper echelons of the Church frowned upon these excesses, some priests left money in their wills for their upkeep.
Feast of the Ass
Another popular form of entertainment that usually took place on New Year’s Day (or, in some parts of France, on January 14), was the Feast of the Ass, which began as a play honoring all of the donkeys mentioned in the Bible. Pride of place went to the donkey that witnessed our Savior’s birth in the manger and that carried Him and His Mother into Egypt. Poems in praise of the ass, “so beautiful, so strong and trim,” were sung in its honor, and asinine elements even crept into a special Mass. After a procession to the church a donkey (possibly a wooden figure) would be placed near the altar and Mass celebrated. At the end of Mass, instead of saying Ite missa est (“Go, the Mass is ended”), the priest brayed thrice, and instead of saying Deo gratias (“Thanks be to God”) the congregation responded with three heehaws. Understandably, the Church did not tolerate this practice for very long.
Gift Giving
January 1 was when the ancient Romans exchanged gifts of sweet pastry, precious stones, lamps, or coins along with good wishes for the new year. The custom, called strenae, has been preserved especially by the French tradition of étrennes. It is on New Year’s Day rather than Christmas that stockings are stuffed with treats, children receive gifts, and great family dinners are held; in fact, there is traditionally more festivity on New Year’s Day in France than on Christmas.
In Germany, there was a custom of giving “New Year boxes” to tradespeople, and some countries use this day as the occasion to give presents to persons who make regular deliveries to the home. Decades ago, it was the milkman, the mailman, the diaper man (remember him?), and the paper boy. Now, of course, it is the abbreviated workers of USPS, FedEx, UPS, and DHL.
Monetary gifts in France are called étrennes.
New Year Calling
Calling is the custom of formally visiting people to pay one’s respects, and in France New Year Calling was once a hallowed tradition. Family, friends, and even professional associates were expected to call on each other. In Brittany the new year’s wish took on a religious form: “I wish you a good year and Paradise at the end of your days.”
Until the middle of the nineteenth-century, New Year calling was also a staple of New York City. Thanks to the lingering influence of the Dutch, New Yorkers devoted the day to a “universal interchange of visits.” “Every door was thrown wide open,” writes one observer. “It was a breach of etiquette to omit any acquaintance in these annual calls, when old friendships were renewed and family differences amicably settled. A hearty welcome was extended even to strangers of presentable appearance.” We don’t understand how anyone was at home to receive a call when everyone was supposed to be out calling, but somehow the arrangement worked, and it worked so well that it became rather raucous:
The ceremony of calling was a burlesque. There was a noisy and hilarious greeting, a glass of wine was swallowed hurriedly, everybody shook hands all round, and the callers dashed out and rushed into the carriage and were driven rapidly to the next house.
Our contemporary custom of wishing someone a happy new year is a dry derivation of this rollicking tradition.
A Louis Prang Greeting Card
Greeting Cards
Another variation of New Year Calling is the Christmas card, which actually began as a New Year’s greeting card. In the mid-nineteenth century, more affordable postal rates made the practice feasible, and within decades the custom was well established. Around 1850, Louis Prang, a German immigrant to Boston, began the practice of exchanging hand-made holiday cards with his friends. By 1865 he was printing multi-colored cards and The Topsy-Turvy Twelve Days of Christmas, selling them throughout the United States. To this day he is considered the “Father of the Greeting Card Industry.” In the 1950s the American family sent out an average of 50 Christmas cards every year, a total of two billion. Today, emails and social media have put a dent in the greeting card industry.
New Year calling also intersected with a superstition called “first-footing,” the belief that the first person to pass through the door on New Year’s Day would affect the welfare of the family for the rest of the year. It was particularly bad luck for a woman to first-foot, and so great measures were taken to have a boy or man be the first in. In some parts of England, young urchins would go from house to house in the pre-dawn hours singing songs, and one of them would be admitted into the kitchen to provide good luck for all the year; in other places, a specially designated boy or bachelor called the “lucky bird” served as the local first-footer. In London, some restaurateurs made sure that a man opened the restaurant on New Year’s morning rather than the waitresses. But women were not only the ones who bore the brunt of this prejudice: the first-footer also had to be dark-haired (blond and red-haired males brought bad luck), and he should never be flat-footed but have an instep that water could pass under!
First Footing, Scotland, for Duke Brand Cigarettes. What a way to start the year as a young maiden!
A similar but happily non-misogynistic superstition is the belief that everything you do on New Year’s Day determines the rest of the year. Based on the principle that “a good beginning makes a good ending,” this superstition led folks on January 1 to wear new clothes, stuff their pockets with money, and eat plentifully. Similarly, you would not want to sleep through your alarm clock on New Year’s morning or be late for something because you will then be stuck with these patterns for the entire year. Greek entertainment on New Year’s Eve is based on a similar logic: folks at home mostly play card games with the hope that if they are lucky tonight, they will be lucky all next year.
Twelfth Night (January 5)
Inversion customs could take place any time during the Twelve Days of Christmas, and sometimes even after (for example, New Orleans’ Mardi Gras). But a number of them migrated to the final night. On the evening of January 5, a King’s cake would be baked with a bean or coin in it; whoever discovered the object in his cake would be King for the occasion. In England, an entire court would then be chosen by drawing the name of a character from a hat and assuming that role for the rest of the night. There was also an element of charity to these celebrations: in France a large piece of cake was set aside for a poor person and a collection taken for the education of a promising disadvantaged youngster.
But perhaps the most memorable aspect of Twelfth Night was cross-dressing. Christmastime cross-dressing is a kind of “mumming,” the act of disguising oneself as part of a festivity and that is usually tied to some kind of pageantry or stage performance. The pageantry can be grand and formal, as when English noblemen under the direction of a “Master of Revels” impersonated emperors, popes, and cardinals for the amusement of Richard II in 1377. Or it can be raucous and informal, as when common folk smeared their faces with soot or paint, wore brightly colored costumes or the garments of the opposite sex, and went from door to door trick-or-treat style asking for goodies from their neighbors and making mild mischief. Christmastime cross-dressing like this is still popular in places like Newfoundland and Labrador.
Mummers in Newfoundland
As for theatrical performances, the nobles enjoyed a good “masque,” a courtly drama involving elaborate costumes, dancing, music, and audience participation, while the lowbrow enjoyed what eventually became known in England as “pantomime,” a silly play involving a matronly character played by a generally unattractive man in drag, audience participation, and plenty of earthy humor.
In any event, the association of cross-dressing with the evening of January 5 was strong enough to allow William Shakespeare to call his play involving a female character disguised as a man “Twelfth Night.” At least, that is one theory about the origin of the title.
Concluding Reflections
Although the topsy-turvy customs of Christmastime have not all become extinct, they have as a whole fallen on hard times. Catholic Church officials consistently tried to stem abuses throughout the Middle Ages, and the Reformation (especially the Puritans) were only too eager to deliver the coup de grâce. Henry VIII forbade children “stranglie decked” as “priestes, bishoppes, and women.” His daughter Queen Mary restored the practice, but it was made illegal again by her successor Elizabeth. In the United States, factors contributing to the decline of the Twelve Days include the rise of Santa Claus and “Dickensian” Christmas customs, secular New Year’s Eve parties, and the Christmas marketing season. Finally, the twelve-day unit of time was ruptured when the Catholic Church in the United States and in other countries moved the Epiphany from January 6 to a nearby Sunday.
’Tis a shame, in our opinion. A plot in which two or more people temporarily exchange bodies and are forced to live each other’s lives is called “body-swap” or “body-switch.” In these stories, the characters usually gain a deeper appreciation of each other’s daily trials and tribulations as well as a greater insight into themselves. Wisdom, self-knowledge, and empathy are the reward for walking a mile in someone’s moccasins. The topsy-turvy customs of Twelvetide no doubt had a similar value. Like body-swap movies, these practices encourage empathy for the other and are a healthy cautionary reminder that our current roles in life are temporary and that we best not get too inflated by them. Finally, they act as a safety valve releasing social pressures that have pent up over the year from the various roles we play. Perhaps for the good of the nation, we should take back the Twelfth Night.

Michael Foley is the author of Why We Kiss under the Mistletoe: Christmas Traditions Explained (Regnery, 2022).

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