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New Year Celebrations

By Stephanie Henderson
Georgian Church of Wicca, Elven Line

New Year celebrations are common to almost all cultures, marking the end of one solar, agricultural or pastoral cycle and the beginning another. While all of the commercial, modern world now counts by the same calendar and so New Year’s Day is the same most everywhere, there are still some religious calendar differences. In the past these differences were even greater. The choice of when to mark the end of the old year and the beginning of the new was always in tune with a particular culture’s environment and cosmology.

The Celts marked the end of their year with Samhain, November first. This is the beginning of winter and, for the pastoral tribes, the time of death, when surplus animals are butchered. Other ancient cultures marked the Winter Solstice as the death and birth of the Sun, while still others celebrated their New Year with the beginning of new life in the spring, as with much of Europe, where, beginning in 527 A.D. at the instigation of Dionysius (the Christian Saint) to as late as the eighteenth century in some places, March twenty-fifth marked the beginning of the year. In the case of the Egyptians the rising of the star, Sirius, which coincided with the beginning of the inundation by the Nile became the official New Year, falling on our date July nineteenth. In England and Scotland, especially, many Yule or Christmas customs, frowned on by the Protestant Church due to their Pagan source, were displaced to New Years celebrations. Later, with the regulation brought by a global, secular New Year some seasonal customs were lost or transferred to celebrations of the Yule season. The following are a few of the means to celebrate and mark the ending of the solar year and bring in the new one properly.

THE FESTIVAL OF JANUS fell from January 1st to 6th. The first week of January was sacred to the Roman God Janus, who looks both forward and back. Janus is the God of all gateways, both real and symbolic and by extension, ruled journeys, communications and beginnings. He was also honored at the calends, or first day of each month. Ovid considered Janus to be the Father of all.

Diodorus Siculus reported on the Solstice customs of some of Rome’s subjects and tribal neighbors. He wrote that every five years the Gauls held a great human sacrifice. He also reported “…men going about clad in the skins of animals or wearing masks on the Calends of January.” (See Feast of Fools in the Yule festivals.) Both of these examples generate more questions than they answer and vividly illustrate one of the problems with all of the ancient, contemporary sources. Very often the practices of others are reported with no attempt to determine the reasons for the practice. In even worse instances the reporter makes his own judgment regarding the motivating force behind the rituals and we are left with sometimes wildly improbable imaginings treated as fact.

HOGMANAY – December 31st, in some places the celebration lasts to Twelfth Night or Plough Monday. In Scotland, Hogmanay is the most important annual festival, welcoming in the New Year. With the advent of Protestantism in Scotland many Christmas celebrations suppressed by the church were transferred to this festival. Different areas of the country have different customs the following is only a sampling.

In several areas there are Burning the Old Year Out ceremonies that all include fire in a cleansing or purifying aspect like bonfires, torch light parades and more dangerous pursuits like racing through town bearing specially constructed barrels of burning tar. One version of this sport, found at Burghead in Scotland, is called ‘Burning the Clavie’. Another example is the Allendale Tarbarrels. Another local variant is a custom involving the rolling of burning wheels down a traditionally sacred hill. The wheel is a solar symbol that had been stylized in folk art as a swastika long before it was adopted by the Third Reich of Nazi Germany.

Gift giving at the New Year is often more important than at Christmas and gifts of special foods are intended as charms, to bring abundance to the recipients in the coming year. Nothing is allowed to go out of the house on New Year’s Day to protect the luck of the inhabitants. It is also of prime importance that the first visitor of the New Year be a propitious one and so “First Footers” are ready at the stroke of midnight on December thirty-first to make their rounds. While the requirements for First Footers differ from area to area, most often they are tall, attractive men with high arched feet who should bring with them a piece of coal or wood for the fire, a loaf of bread and a bottle of whisky. Then, without a word, he puts the coal on the fire, the loaf on the table and pours a glass of whisky for the head of the house. Then he wishes all a “Happy New Year”. He should always enter by the front door and leave by the back.

“Creaming the Well” is drawing the first water from any well or spring on New Year’s Day. This water brings luck in marriage to the girl who manages to get it. The water is also used to wash farm utensils for luck, faces for beauty, and was drunk by the family in different places as a sort of spiritual purge.

In the Orkneys it is the custom to walk sunwise round your house three times at midnight on Hogmanay. This is believed to bring good luck. A standing stone also in Orkney was said to walk from its circle to the Loch of Stennis and dip its head in the loch at midnight and then return to its place before the sun rose. A gruesome tale was told locally of a visiting sailor who wanted to disprove the folk belief and so he lay in wait along the route the stone would have to take the loch. When he failed to appear the next day a search was set in motion. All that was ever found of him was his head.

Some customs for the beginning the New Year are intended to purify and bless the home and farm. One simple purification rite requires that juniper, known as mountain yew in the Highlands be burned as a fumigant in house and byre on New Year’s Day. In a similar but far more elaborate ceremony a man covered in a cow’s hide, with an entourage of young men and boys armed with staves, runs three times sunwise ’round a house while the others beat on the house with their staves making loud noises. At the threshold one of their number then declaims:

May God bless this house and all that belongs to it,
Cattle, stones and Timber!
In plenty of meat, of bed and body clothes,
And the health of men may it ever abound!

Finally, a bit of raw hide attached to one of the staves is singed and carried throughout the house and grounds where all the inhabitants, human and otherwise must inhale the fumes.

TWELFTH NIGHT is celebrated on January 6th. The last night of the Twelve days of Christmas, this, of course, was several kinds of Pagan festival all celebrating the rebirth of the sun at the Winter Solstice. On this day at Haxey in Lincolnshire the HAXEY HOOD GAME is played. This is one example of several similar contests that are Celtic survivals and the ancestors of modern sports like football and soccer. Twelve “Boggans” are exhorted by the Fool,

“Hoose agin Hoose!
Toon agin Toon!
If thou meets a man,
Knock ‘im doon!
(But don’t ‘urt ‘im.)”

He would lead the “team”? to scramble for a “Hood”, a two foot leather cylinder. The two teams, each called a “sway”, from Haxey and the neighboring village may consist of a hundred men or more. They “scrum”, pushing and shoving the hood and each other all afternoon until one group reaches the local tavern of the other. Injuries are not uncommon but are taken in good sport. The Hood is then kept in the tavern of the winning team in a place of honor all year.

LENAIA was a mid winter festival of ancient Greece and related cultures. It was celebrated in the “month”? Gamelion, days 12, 13, 14, which corresponds, usually, to the second or third week in January. The practices varied over time and location. They are, however, concerned mainly with Dionysus in both his role of patron and animating spirit of vine culture and as the divinity whose death and resurrection are celebrated. The famed Maenads, or wild women, were said to enact the death of Dionysus through ecstatic dance and ritual by night on the slopes of Mt Parnassus. The rites which occurred in alternate years were called the Oreibasia and culminated in the tearing apart of the sacrificial victim. The rites have a long history extending to before recorded history. By reputation the victim, who personified the vegetal spirit of Dionysus, was anyone male, animal or human who ventured to the 800 foot elevation of the mountain at midwinter. In historic times an officially recognized and supported band of Maenads kept the rites and a shrine to the god on the slopes of the mountain.

In the Thraco-Phrygian celebration the Dionysian midwinter dance ended in the Omophagia where a bull calf is torn to shreds and consumed by the participants who then become Bacchoi or god-possessed. In Cynaetha, men, whose bodies were greased in preparation for the rites, inspired by the god, went among the herds and chose the sacrificial bull calf and carried it to the temple where the women sang to welcome it,

Come hither, Dionysus, to thy holy temple by the Sea;
Come with thy Graces to thy temple,
Rushing with thy Bull’s Foot.
O, Goodly Bull, O, Goodly Bull!

The calf was then sacrificed in a holy rite. At the Cretan Lenaia the God was known as Zagreus and a shape-shifting spiral dance where animals were imitated was performed. In addition to the death and resurrection of Dionysus as described in these rituals there were also rites to taste the first of the new wine, particularly in rural areas, where the Dionysias took on a much more bucolic character.

STRAW BEAR DAY takes place in January. Once a midwinter feature in the fenland villages in England now the Straw Bear is seen only in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire on the Saturday before Plough Monday. His appearance is now used to collect money for charity although in times past he was not so benevolent. A Scottish custom at Samhain of young men disguising themselves in wrappings of straw to impersonate the spirits of the dead may very well give a clue to the fear his appearance was supposed to create. The Straw Bear as well as other creatures, like the Burry Man, represent the other face of the Green Man. While the Green Man personifies the burgeoning, vegetal spirit of spring and summer the Straw Bear man and other similar manifestations personify the spirit of vegetation in winter.

The Straw Bear is enacted by a man covered from top to bottom by twisted straw bands, his head covered with a tall straw helmet. In the past he was led from house to house, chained and growling, accompanied by the Plough Monday Witches, to harass and jostle the inhabitants. His visits and personal attentions are said to bring luck.

PLOUGH MONDAY falls on the Monday after Twelfth Night when the ploughs in the villages of some areas of rural England are censed and blessed for the spring ploughing. In one community the young boys take part in a ploughing contest where they both drive and draw the plow. In times past, in some areas, young men wearing tatters or beribboned and rosetted shirts would haul a decorated plough around the village demanding largesse from all they met. If it was not forthcoming they would plough up pavements, gardens, even roadways. They were often accompanied by a troupe who might include Plough Monday witches, the Straw Bear, Morris and/or sword dancers and mummers.

JUTURNALIA falls on January 11th. A Roman Festival honoring Juturna (Diuturna), the goddess of all rivers and still waters who won her kingdom from Jupiter in exchange for her virtue. A Latin Goddess, she was honored by the artisans of fountains and aqueducts.

APPLE WASSAILING usually falls about the middle of January. On this, Twelfth Night by the old calendar, in Carhampton, Somerset a procession of men sets out to wish good health to the cider-apple trees. At a well-grown, pre-selected tree they form a circle and dipping toast in a pail of the previous year’s cider they hang the offerings to the ‘Robin’s’ spirits of the trees in the branches. A shot gun is fired into the branches of the tree to scare away evil spirits and cupfuls of cider are thrown up into the branches accompanied by the chant,

Old Apple Tree, Old Apple Tree,
We’re come to Wassail Thee!

LUIS/ROWAN – Tree month begins, January 21.

UP-HELLY-AA ““is celebrated on the last day of January. This is a fire festival that takes place every year in the Shetlands, Scotland. A procession of costumed torchbearers, known as “guizers”?, accompanied by pipe bands and singing the Up-Helly-Aa song, leads the townspeople to a Viking “ship” set up in the town center, whose crew deserts at the guizers approach. The guizers set fire to the “ship” and then visit every hall in town where they perform their play and receive refreshment.

This celebration marked the end of the Midwinter celebration in Orkney and Shetland. It was believed to be the day that the ‘trows’, the local name for the Scandinavian trolls, were forced to return to their under hill home. During this time they had been flying about on bulrushes doing mischief to those who neglected to protect themselves adequately for the season.

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