Posts Tagged ‘auld lang syne’

Inquiring Readers, We will soon be ringing in 2022 and celebrating New Year’s Eve. Superstitions and traditions from the Regency era still survive. This post mentions customs Jane Austen and her family probably knew about or personally followed.

Did you know that the New Year’s Day date was changed to January 1st in 1752?

William Savage, who writes about Georgian England in his blog and who lives in England, writes that his oldest relatives still often refer to January 6th as ‘Old Christmas Day.’ The change came: 

from the time in 1752 when Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar to align our dates with those in use on the continent. The calendar was advanced by 11 days: Wednesday 2nd September, 1752 was followed by Thursday 14th September, 1752 and the year shortened to just 355 days to allow the New Year to fall on January 1st.” – The Superstitious Eighteenth Century, William Savage, Pen and Pension: Immerse Yourself in Georgian England 

Black and white engraving of two men in a tavern shaking hands at midnight, singing Auld Lang Syne

The Complete Works of Robert Burns: Containing the Poems, Songs, and Correspondence. Illustrated By W.H. Bartlett, T. Allom, and Other Artists. With a New Life of the Poet, and Notices, Critical and Biographical by Allan Cunningham, London: George Virtue, ca. 1841. Image, Wikimedia Commons


Savage also mentions that washing any clothes on New Year’s Day was considered as “washing someone out of the family,” resulting in their death in the coming year. Meanwhile, the Chinese avoided any cleaning on New Year’s Eve, since they believed that any scrubbing or cleansing would guarantee that no one in the house would  experience luck in the next twelve months.

Donna Hatch states, however, that “During the Regency and Georgian Eras, one tradition was to clean the house thoroughly, including ashes in the hearth, scraps, and rags, and even eating or discarding any perishable food in order to start the year fresh, discarding bad luck and inviting good luck.” Her source, I believe, is Maria Grace’s book, A Jane Austen Christmas: Regency Christmas Traditions. 

Doors and Thresholds

As part of their New Year’s celebrations on the final day of the old year on the Gregorian Calendar, also known as Hogmanay, the Scots still practice ‘first footing,’ an ancient Gaelic tradition, in which the first person to cross a home’s threshold can bring good or bad luck in the next year. This individual should be someone who was not in the house before midnight, and  

… should be someone who is tall, dark, handsome and bearing gifts such as coins, coal, salt, bread and whiskey. But beware, as fair-haired males are considered unlucky. It is believed this superstition dates back to the Viking invasion, back when blonde strangers turning up at your door usually meant trouble.” – East Anglian Daily Times, 12 quirky New Year’s Eve superstitions” 

 A Dozen Guests or An Even Number?

In ‘Regency Folklore: An Uneven Superstition,’ Regency Reader writes:

A popular superstition alive in the Regency era had all to do with an uneven number of dinner guests.  Apparently, if the number of guests at a table reached 13, it was a bad omen. Of death. Specifically, death to the youngest at the table and within a year of the dinner party.”

The Last Supper was one obvious basis for this tradition/superstition. The feast featured 13 people, one of whom (Judas) betrayed Jesus. The omen of death makes sense in this context. Less known by many is a Viking legend passed through oral tradition in Christian Britain, one that concerns twelve people sharing a meal in Valhalla, which was crashed by Loki, a cunning trickster and spirit of strife. One person at that banquet ended up dead. The unlucky number 13 figures most highly with superstitious people.

The even number of guests might explain a French theory of why most dinner sets come in multiples of twelve. This article from How Stuff Works describes why

The thirteenth person who ends up with a mismatched plate would feel unloved, and come into bad luck.”

As an aside, my family’s tradition has been to give our guests the matching dinner service, while we use the mismatched ware. It also seems that any uneven number of guests at the New Year’s table might bring ill luck in the new year. Protocol and etiquette, especially in proper Regency and Victorian households, required an even number at the table so that guests were paired. 

Auld Lang Syne

Who hasn’t sung this famous song when the clock strikes midnight?  Kristen Koster writes that Auld Lang Syne translates to “old long since.”

After a long tradition of being sung during the Scottish celebration of Hogamany on New Year’s Eve, the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, collected and wrote down the lyrics in 1788 and it was first published in 1796. It quickly spread to much of the English-speaking world and is now sung at the stroke of midnight instead of when the guests leave the party. – A Regency Primer on Christmastide & New Year’s

“Auld Lang Syne” – Music and Lyrics by Trad.(Robert Burns). Arranged by Dougie MacLean. Published by Limetree Arts and Music (PRS & MCPS UK), Butterstone Studios.

Happy New Year, ALL!

In conclusion, our blog team wishes you a Happy New Year’s Eve and a joyous 2022. May the pandemic release its stranglehold on our world citizens and may we experience freedom of movement once again to go where and when we like.

Other Resources

New Year’s articles on this blog

English Historical Fiction, English History Authors: A Regency Holiday Calendar

Regency Folklore: An Uneven Superstition

Custom Survived: New Year’s Day First Footing 

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Robert Burns, Auld Lang Syne

Robert Burns, Auld Lang Syne

Midwinter celebrations  have been celebrated in England since ancient times. In Scotland one such celebration was known as Hogmanay; in England it was called New Year’s Eve. The Gregorian calendar marks December 31st as the last day of the year, but New Year’s Day was not always celebrated on January 1st. In Anglo-Saxon England the year started on the 25th of December. The day has also been celebrated  on March 1st, March 25th, and September 24th, depending on which calendar was used. As early as the 17th century,when the legal year began on March 25th,  Samuel Pepys would write about the passing of the old year on December 31st, eighty years before England moved the start of the year to January 1st.

Father time

Father time

Today we sing  Auld Lang Syne at the stroke of midnight. Commonly thought to be written in the 1700s by the poet Robert Burns, who was inspired by earlier renditions, the song was published after his death in 1796. According to the BBC article, Have Old Connections Been Forgot? BBC news story, the song is “now thought that the tune to match the words was part of the overture for Rosina, an obscure operetta written in 1783 by Englishman William Shield, who was born in Swalwell, Gateshead in 1748.” The words Auld Lang Syne literally mean “old long ago,” or “the good old days.”

Since the days of the Romans, the passage of time has been associated with the god Saturn, who is the inspiration of Old Father Time.  Read my other post about New Year’s Eve at this link.

Have a safe and happy New Year’s Celebration!

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