New Year’s Day actually began at sundown on 31 December for people in Medieval times because days were counted as starting then rather than at midnight back in then. That’s also why we do our primary partying (at least when we are younger and stronger than my middle-aged butt is now) on New Year’s Eve rather than on New Year’s Day even in modern times.
Then, as now, one of the most common ways to celebrate was to drink until the floor was wobbly and eat anything not actively trying to escape you. However, for the people in the Middle Ages not only was New Year’s a time for a major feast, it was also the primary gift giving day. Gift giving was, as it still can be, full of symbolism and coded social byplay. Those who were lower down the social totem pole were expected to give their master/lord/patron a gift to demonstrate their loyalty, respect, and sycophancy. In return, the superior person would often a greater gift than he had received to show off his/her higher rank, wealth, and Christian generosity.
The place the gift giving all came to a peak was, of course, the court. The monarch would receive something from a courtier or servant which would be duly noted in the gift roll, which all historians give thanks for to this day. This was most people’s best chance to impress the king or queen, and hopefully win their favor. Since eras with feudal or semi-feudal systems were the ultimate “trickle down” economies, the right gift to the right person meant what trickled down to you had some gold mixed in with the crap.
Giving the best you could did not mean that the guy who shoveled out royal stables was expected to fork over the same kind of loot for a gift as a Cardinal would, of course. For example, in 1520 the Princess Mary received yet another gold cup from Cardinal Wolsey, as well as silver flagons and fancy candle snuffers from other nobles, but she received a small purse of “tinsel satin” from her personal nurse, Mary Margaret. The nurse’s gift was smaller, but may have represented a larger outlay of her income, which Mary would have been well aware of.
Sometimes she got gifts from people simply because they loved her. She would get eatable tributes like nuts, fruits, and cakes from local admires farther down the social totem pole, which were expensive for them even as they commonplace for Mary. The princess also received “rosemary bushes with gold-painted spangles” decorating them from someone only recorded as “a poor woman of Greenwich”.
I wonder if that gift meant more to Mary than the gold cup from Wolsey? Mary probably gave the woman a gift in return that was almost certainly worth more monetarily, so a cynic could claim the “poor woman” was just feathering her own nest by manipulating the medieval rules of reciprocity, but I would like to think that there was sentimental motivation in the woman’s gesture.
Another popular form of personal gift were epigrams. An epigram is one or two lines of interesting, memorable, surprising, or satirical prose verses that can read like a short poems or couplet (but does NOT need to rhyme!) that had been a significant form of wordage since the Greeks and Romans. The most important part of the epigram is that it sum up a profound thought or truth. For example, the Roman novelist Aeschylus was famous for the epigram, “It is easy when we are in prosperity to give advice to the afflicted” and one of Aristotle’s many epigrams was, “Wit is educated insolence”.
For a medieval courtier, a good epigram was crucial to show off one’s intellectual abilities and impress one’s peers. Later on, Renaissance poets would take the epigram and run with it (Shakespeare’s sonnets were loaded with epigrams), but it was still associated with New Year’s in Europe for a long time. Nowadays we are more likely to just see an epigram as a witty saying rather than a prose art form. Some of the best epigrams in modern times were from Will Rogers, which may surprise some people who mistake “folksiness” for “stupidity”. One of my favorite epigrams from Rogers is, “A fool and his money are soon elected”.
Alas, that one is all too true.
Anyway, I hope all of you have a lovely New Year’s Day and the 2017 brings you every happiness possible!