The coming of the New Year has been celebrated since well into antiquity, but never has it been so well and truly celebrated than in the British Isles, especially during the Regency period. Many of the customs practiced in England, Scotland, and Ireland had roots in Ancient Rome (with the Saturnalia), Ancient Scandinavia, and Ancient Celtic cultures.
The New Year’s toast has its origins in the medieval period, when goblets were clinked liberally during the evening while wishing one another “Waes Hael” or “Be Well.” It was called a “toast” because pieces of toasted bread were put into the cups—like croutons—perhaps to enhance the flavor of the drink.
The Vikings celebrated the season of Yule—giving name to our Yule log for Christmas—which comprised what we now call “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
Many of our New Year’s customs come from the Scottish celebration of Hogmanay. A bonfire is lit to represent several different things: the light of knowledge passing from one year to the next, the putting of darkness of the past behind you and carrying light forward to the future.
Another custom, called “First Footing” holds over to today, or at least into the past century. It was thought that if the first person to set foot over your threshold on New Year’s Day (preferably just after midnight) was a dark-haired stranger carrying a cake or a coin, you will have a prosperous house for the year. In return, you offer the man food and drink. I remember in my childhood, my mother being in a state of panic until my uncle (who was tall and dark-haired) would come to the door, cross the threshold and sit down a minute, at which point my mother served him egg nog, and then he left. As I think of it, her mother’s family name was Vaughan—a Scottish surname—so it may have been passed down for generations from Scotland.
And finally, in the rural areas of Scotland and England, village girls would race out on New Year’s Day morning to be the one to draw the first pitcher or bucketful of water, called the “cream of the year” that was purported to have special properties and so was used sparingly until it was gone.
Some of these customs live on today on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. The greatest one, however, may be the singing of “Auld Lang Syne,” Scottish for “Old Long Time” or “Old Times Sake.” The lyrics are attributed to Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland, although he admitted before it was printed in 1877 that he had had an inspiration from an earlier poem. The familiar tune to which the poem is now sung, was different in the original version. The composer remains unknown.
And even though there is no mention of the New Year in the song, the nostalgic lyrics have made the song most consistently sung to celebrate the passing out of the Old Year and the coming in of the New Year.
The widowed Lady Stephen Tarkington, Fanny to her friends, has finished mourning her cad of a husband and is ready to enjoy her freedom. The kind of freedom neither a gently bred miss nor a close-watched wife is permitted: dressing up as Aphrodite for a masquerade, drawing gentlemen away from the party, and hinting at late-night assignations with her dance partners. All is going pleasurably according to plan—until the Roman god Fanny kisses during a masquerade turns out to be Matthew, Lord Lathbury, whose proposal she refused years ago . . .
Lathbury is charming, passionate, inventive, everything Fanny wants in a lover—but unfortunately, he’s on the hunt for a wife. He’s more than willing to use all his wicked skills to persuade her back to the altar, but he can’t wait forever. And now Fanny’s position is more precarious than she once thought. If the tongues of the ton set to wagging, it’s possible no offer in the world will save her from ruin. But does she want to be saved? . . .