Out with the old and in with the new. The changing of the calendar and turning of the year is marked, of course, by New Year’s Eve (and frankly, if you didn’t know that, I’d be worried about you). This event is celebrated in many different ways across the world but I’m here to talk about the ones from the North-East of England and the Borders, because those are the ones I’ve grown up with.
Until relatively recently, Scotland always made a bigger deal out of New Year while the South of England celebrated Christmas more. According to Steve Roud’s book, The English Year, this doesn’t mark a fundamental difference in regional psyches, but is a result of the political and religious changes in the 17th century. The Puritans banned Christmas everywhere (boo) but it was reinstated in England when the monarchy was restored in 1660, while the Scottish church continued to frown upon celebrations, so the people there put all their energies into the more secular New Year instead. This led to an interesting situation in the North Country – I imagine somewhere, there was a regional discussion which went like this:
“So, them lot further north get New Year off from work but the southerners get Christmas…which day shall we go for?”
“Why choose? I like holidays, let’s have both.”
“Hooray!” (All exit to pub.)
And thus my area traditionally had two nice holidays in December. Let’s face it, though, New Year falls at a tricky bit of the old calendar – it’s right in the middle of the festivities that would stretch from Christmas to Twelfth Night, so it’s no wonder that New Year celebrations gradually usurped Twelfth Night to the point now where it’s just the uncelebrated end of the festive season. I think we should bring those Lords of Misrule back and make a proper party of the whole start of the year.
Hogmanay is probably familiar to you as the Scottish name for New Year’s Eve. The name comes from the gift given to youngsters who’d go around begging on the old year’s night. I didn’t know until recently, but the name still exists in parts of North Northumberland for a gift of spice bread, cheese and a little liquor given away on the same day. I’m definitely re-instigating that one here!
Midnight is the start of seeing the New Year in. In Allendale, a Northumbrian village high up in the North Pennines, the villagers gather for a procession of burning tar barrels (or, as they’re pronounced, tar barrls). These barrels are carried by 40 or so costumed Guisers (so called because they’re in disguise – the name is also used at Halloween) through to the town centre, and then thrown on the main bonfire. The role of carrying a barrel is passed down through local families, and has miraculously managed to escape the modern Health and Safety executive. I presume this is because they do wear protective gear, but also because I wouldn’t want to argue with a person carrying flaming tar on his head. Did I not mention that the barrels are held/balanced above the head? Yep, well, they are. I wouldn’t get in the way of anyone doing that.
And before anyone starts attributing mystical Celtic origins to this – yes, before personified gods, people worshipped fire, we get it – in Allendale the origins really are more recent. The burning barrels were introduced in the 19th century as a means of lighting the path of the village band when they would walk around the village to play the year in.
Once midnight has been struck, and of course the bells have been rung out, first footing begins. This tradition has survived longest in Scotland, but was historically carried out all across the North of England too. The first person over a house’s threshold is supposed to bring good luck to the family for the rest of the year, but only if they meet some criteria. Well, otherwise it would be too easy to get luck, wouldn’t it? In order to be a lucky first-foot, you must preferably be male, tall, dark haired (or light haired in Northumberland), handsome, not cross-eyed and carrying gifts such as coal, bread or salt. These items each symbolise a warm and prosperous household. And of course it’s good form to give the first foot a whisky, or a chocolate orange. Everyone also joins in eating spiced foodstuffs and liquor.
New Year, like Halloween, is also a time for telling the future. Some Northumbrians held that you should make a note of the name of the first person you meet on New Year’s Day, because if you’re single, that will be the name of your future partner. In Yorkshire, different wind directions also foretold the future: a south wind “betokened” warmth and growth, the west heralded plentiful supplies of milk and fish, the north brought cold and storms, the east a bumper fruit harvest, while a north-east wind meant everyone had to flee because something bad was on its way.
New Day’s Day is also the traditional time for rapper sword –dancing. I’m not talking about popping some swords on the floor and skipping around them, but gripping the ends of five double-handled, flexible swords and twisting them into figures. The dance style comes from mining areas, of which the North-East is not short of a few, since the swords were supposedly originally scrapers designed to get the sweat off the back of pit ponies. They may not be pointy, but let go of one end and you’ll easily concuss/have an eye out/break other things. And hand-scrapes and head-bashes are par for the course when you’re practising.
Anyway, on New Year’s Day, rapper teams would roam the posh houses of the local area performing dances and mummers’ plays for the lords and ladies in exchange for money and drink. Or they’d perform at the pub. My Dad’s a rapper dancer, and so am I, so I know what I mean when I say that a rapper team’s natural habitat is the pub. This tradition still goes on today, such as in Monkseaton, near Whitley Bay.
This isn’t Monkseaton, it’s my team, Star and Shadow, and they’re not dancing at New Year, but you get the idea.
Like every other family, I imagine, we have our own things that have developed into customs around New Year. I’m a bell-ringer at Morpeth Clock Tower, so the past few years I’ll have met a few mates for drinkies before trooping off to ring in the year at midnight. People in the town traditionally gather in the Market Place to hear the bells chime midnight, but the noise is usually so loud the bells can’t be heard at all! Then I’d go home with the parents, have a family friend be first-foot, and then we’d put on this odd CD we got years ago. We call them “The Hungarian Bouncing Team” because they’re either Hungarian or Romanian (we forget) and have a song that legit sounds like a man singing on a trampoline. Another favourite track is a singer being accompanied by a musical saw. And by this time we’re all a bit tiddly anyway.
This year has been slightly different for me, because I worked at the pub on New Year’s Eve. It felt a bit like just an ordinary night, though we closed the bar for half an hour either side of midnight so we could join in festivities with our own pints too. A bit different from traditional Wassailing (from the Anglo-Saxon greeting “waes hael”, or “be healthy”) where you pass a communal cup around.
Oh, and Auld Lang Syne? (Pronounced with an “s”, like “snake”, not a “z”.) Of course no New Year would be complete without a sing, or a slur, of that. The tune was written by William Shield, a local lad from Swalwell (a rapper dancing area) who became master of the king’s music in 1817. I once almost tripped over his gravestone in Westminster Abbey. The tune was very popular, being used for lots of different songs well before Burns took it for his famous poem. These include “Coaly Tyne”, a celebration of the river that runs through Newcastle, and the South Shields Auld Lang Syne version, which is a little more upbeat but still about drinking to good fortune. A good sentiment for the starting year, I think.