A History of New Year’s Day

By Tim Lambert

Until the year 1752, in England, New Year’s Day was, legally on 25 March, which was the Feast of the Annunciation when an angel told Mary the mother of Jesus that she was pregnant and would have a son. (It was also called Lady Day).

However long before the legal change, most people regarded 1 January as New Year’s Day. Samuel Pepys began his famous diary on 1 January 1660.

In Tudor England, rich or well-off people gave gifts on New Year’s Day (25 March). For the rich and powerful it was important to give an expensive gift to the king or queen to gain their favor. However, it was also important for the monarch to give expensive presents back, to show their generosity. However, the custom of giving presents at New Year died out in the 19th century when it became common to give presents at Christmas.

New Year Superstitions

In the past, many people were very superstitious and changes between periods were very significant. Therefore there were many superstitions about New Year as late as the 19th century. Many people believed that you should not take anything out of the house until you had brought something in, otherwise, you would ‘take out’ the luck. Some people would not take out the rubbish or ash from the fire. Others even refused to let a neighbor light a taper from their fire to take home to light their fire!

It was also important that the first man to step over the threshold (called the first footer) should have dark hair. (It must be a man it was bad luck if a woman was the first person to enter your house on New Year’s Day). Some people believed that the ‘first footer’ should bring a lump of coal for extra luck.

Many people believed that the first water drawn from the well on New Year’s Day (known as the cream of the well) was special and if a woman washed in it she would become beautiful.

Although 1 January was legally made New Year’s Day in Britain in 1752 it was not made a bank holiday till 1974.

In Scotland after the Reformation, the Church disapproved of Christmas because they believed it had pagan origins. So New Year or Hogmanay was a much bigger celebration.

The custom of making New Year’s resolutions goes back to the ancient world. So, no doubt does the habit of not keeping them!

Last revised 2024