New Year’s Day is generally a day now of recovery from celebrating the night before. Some families may have a New Year’s day meal but for many years it was New Year’s day not Christmas that was the day for gift giving.
Fosbroke, in his Encyclopædia of Antiquities, notices the continuation of the Roman practice of interchanging gifts during the middle and later ages; a custom which prevailed especially amongst our kings, queens, and the nobility. According to Matthew Paris, Henry III., following the discreditable example of some of the Roman emperors, even extorted them from his subjects.
In Rymer’s Fœdera a list is given of the gifts received by Henry VI. between Christmas Day and February 4th, 1428, consisting of sums of 40s., 20s., 13s. 4d., 10s., 6s. 8d., and 3s. 4d.
In the reign of Henry VII. the reception of the New Year’s gifts presented by the king and queen to each other and by their household and courtiers, was reduced to a solemn formula.
Agnes Strickland, in her Lives of the Queens of England (1864), quotes the following extract from a MS. of Henry VII.’s Norroy herald, in possession of Peter Le Neve, Esq.:
“On the day of the New Year, when the king came to his foot-sheet, his usher of his chamber-door said to him, ‘Sire, here is a New Year’s gift coming from the queen;’ then the king replied, ‘Let it come in.’ Then the king’s usher let the queen’s messenger come within the yate” (meaning the gate of the railing which surrounded the royal bed, instances of which are familiar to the public in the state bedrooms at Hampton Court to this day, and it is probable that the scene was very similar), “Henry VII. sitting at the foot of the bed in his dressing-gown, the officers of his bed-chamber having turned the top sheet smoothly down to the foot of the bed when the royal personage rose. The queen, in like manner, sat at her foot-sheet, and received the king’s New Year’s gift within the gate of her bed-railing. When this formal exchange of presents had taken place between the king and his consort, they received, seated in the same manner, the New Year’s gifts of their nobles. ‘And,’ adds the herald, assuming the first person, ‘I shall report to the queen’s grace and them that be about her, what rewards are to be given to them that bring her grace New Year’s gifts, for I trow they are not so good as those of the king.’”
In the 4th series of Notes and queries it is recorded that:
“there is in the possession of the Marquis of Bath, Longleat, a manuscript, which contains a list of moneys given to King Henry VIII. in the twenty-fourth year of his reign, as New Year’s gifts. They are from archbishops, bishops, noblemen, doctors, gentlemen, &c. The amount which the king’s grace complacently pocketed on this occasion was 792l. 10s. 10d.”
Honest old Latimer, however, says Hone in his 1836 Every Day Book states that instead of presenting Henry VIII. with a purse of gold, put into the king’s hand a New Testament, with a leaf conspicuously doubled down at Hebrews xiii. 4, which, on reference, will be found to have been worthy of all acceptation, though not, perhaps, well accepted.
A manuscript roll of the public revenue of the fifth year of Edward VI. has an entry of rewards given on New Year’s Day to the king, officers, and servants, amounting to 155l. 5s., and also of sums given to the servants of those who presented New Year’s gifts to the king.
Thistleton-Dwyer in his 1836 Popular customs states that:
“During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the custom of presenting New Year’s gifts to the sovereign was carried to an extravagant height. Indeed, Dr. Drake is of opinion that the wardrobe and jewelry of Queen Elizabeth were principally supported by these annual contributions on New Year’s Day. He cites lists of New Year’s gifts presented to her from the original rolls published in her “progresses” by Mr. Nichols; and from these it appears that the presents were made by the great officers of state, peers and peeresses, bishops, knights and their ladies, gentlemen and gentlewomen, physicians and apothecaries, and others of lower grade, down to her Majesty’s dustman. The presents consisted of sums of money, costly articles of ornament for the queen’s person or apartments, caskets studded with precious stones, valuable necklaces, bracelets, gowns, embroidered mantles, smocks, petticoats, looking-glasses, fans, silk stockings, and a great variety of other articles. The largest sum given by any of the temporal lords was 20l.; but the Archbishop of Canterbury gave 40l., the Archbishop of York 30l., and the other spiritual lords, 20l. and 10l. Dr. Drake says, that although Elizabeth made returns to the New Year’s gifts, in plate and other articles, yet she nevertheless took sufficient care that the balance should be in her own favour.”
“In the reign of James I. the money gifts seem to have been continued for some time, but the ornamental articles presented seem to have been few and of small value. No rolls, nor, indeed, any notices of New Year’s gifts presented to Charles I. seem to have been preserved, though probably there were such. The custom, no doubt, ceased entirely during the Commonwealth, and was never afterwards revived, at least, to any extent worthy of notice. Mr. Nichols mentions that the last remains of the custom at court consisted in placing a crown-piece under the plate of each of the chaplains in waiting on New Year’s Day, and that this custom had ceased early in the nineteenth century.”
The New Year’s gifts, says Chambers in his Book of Days presented by individuals to each other were suited to sex, rank, situation, and circumstances. From Bishop Hall’s Satires (1598), it appears that the usual gift of tenantry in the country to their landlords was a capon; and Cowley, addressing the same class of society says:
“Ye used in the former days to fall Prostrate to your landlord in his hall,When with low legs, and in an humble guise,Ye offer’d up a capon sacrificeUnto his worship, at a New Year’s tide.”
Ben Jonson, in his Christmas Masque, among other characters introduces:
“New Year’s gift in a blue coat, serving-man like, with an orange, and a sprig of rosemary on his head, his hat full of brooches, with a collar of gingerbread, his torch-bearer carrying a marchpane, with a bottle of wine on either arm.”
An orange stuck with cloves was a common present, and is explained by Lupton, who says that the flavour of the wine is improved, and the wine itself preserved from mouldiness, by an orange or lemon stuck with cloves being hung within the vessel, so as not to touch the liquor.
Thistleton-Dwyer also adds that:
“When pins were first invented, and brought into use about the beginning of the sixteenth century, they were a New Year’s gift very acceptable to ladies, instead of the wooden skewers which they had hitherto used. Sometimes, however, in lieu of pins, they received a composition in money, called pin money, an expression which has been extended to a sum of money secured by a husband on his marriage for the private expenses of his wife.
Gloves, too, were customary New Year’s gifts. They were far more expensive than nowadays, and occasionally a sum of money was given instead, which was called glove money.”
Now no one gives gifts it seems on New Year’s Day least of all to the monarch