An author friend, Marie Macpherson, brought to my attention that today, being the first Monday of the year in Scotland, was for a time a festival named Handsel Monday (also written as Hansel). This holiday was common in Kingdom of Fife (outlined below in purple) and some rural areas of Stirlingshire and Perthshire, though references state that the city of Stirling also adhered to the tradition of Handsel Monday, as well. It’s possible that other parts of Scotland also kept the tradition for some time but I’ve, personally, not done that research so far. I had never heard of Handsel Monday as a holiday so I did some research.
I was intrigued about the ‘Handsel’ part of Handsel Monday since I knew of the term 'to hansel' or 'to handsel' a new purse by placing a coin in it. It's a practice I grew up with and I still tend to add a £1 coin to a new purse or handbag if given as a gift to someone - though the hanselling would be done at any time of the year if the gift is for a birthday or some other reason. The addition of the handsel coin is regarded as a good luck token.
The word handsel originates from old Saxon word which means “to deliver into the hand” as a token of good luck. (As well as our contemporary ‘Hogmanay into New Year’s Day’ gifts, the modern practice of tendering a house-warming gift would be a good example of this still being in use.)
On Handsel Monday it was common for an apprentice, employed labourer or a servant in a larger house to be given a small gift of money from their employer. Sometimes this was given as a ‘hidden’ gift under the plate when the employer also organised for the employees to have a special breakfast, or special meal as part of the ‘holiday’ gift.
That sounds a laudable act but why was this gift giving done on the first Monday into the New Year?
The answer, I’ve found, lies with the use of the Julian calendar and its replacement – the Gregorian calendar. Some of the complexities of this arise because at the time of the introduction of the Gregorian calendar as the official Roman Catholic Calendar in 1582, England and Scotland were separate countries with their own laws. When Pope Gregory introduced his new calendar, which was solar one - unlike the Julian calendar – it was necessary to lose 11 days from his year to align it with the seasons. His papal bull on the adoption of the Gregorian calendar was adhered to by the Catholic Church and gradually by Catholic countries across Europe.
After the Reformation of the Church in Scotland in 1560, Protestant Calvinists believed that celebrating YULE (Christmas) was too Roman Catholic a thing to do and in fact a pagan thing as well, since the early Catholic Christians had taken over the usage of old pagan feast days. The celebrating of Christmas was therefore officially banned in Scotland in the 1580s- though some folks with Catholic leanings continued to celebrate at this time. ( I imagine those who continued to practise catholicism at this time must have been confused about what day was what when their priest mentioned a Gregorian day and the rest of the country called it something else. Records sometimes show double dates for many years during the following century)
Since most Scottish people still wanted a celebration of some kind, and Pagan festivals (pre-Christian Yule) had long been held around the winter solstice (currently 21st Dec), many people in Scotland made January 1st the day to celebrate- though before 1600 January 1st was not the official start of the year.
‘It wasn’t?’ …might be a question you’re asking yourself. I certainly did.
Before 1600, the official start of the year in Scotland (and other European countries) was the quarter day of ‘Lady Day’ on 25th March. Though King James IV of Scotland and his parliament didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar at this time, they did realign January 1st to be the official START of the year 1600. This was achieved by having a ‘short 1599’ which lasted from 25th March 1599 to December 31st 1599.
England at this time did not realign the official start of the year.
So from Jan 1st 1600, the 1st of January was the official New Year festive day and also the beginning of every year. Many Scots had already adapted after the Reformation and had moved the YULE traditions of gift giving and merriment to Jan 1st. Hogmanay had its First Footing after midnight (Dec 31st into Jan 1st) to herald in the New Year and people used New Year’s Day as a day for families getting together, though not a holiday as such as many still had to work.
By 1752, the Westminster Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar. Like England, to adopt the Gregorian calendar, Scotland also had to ‘lose’ 11 days to realign it. It was decided that September the 2nd would be followed by September the 14th - a loss of 11 days.
Scotland was no longer a separate nation after the Union of the Crowns in 1603, and the Union of the Parliaments in 1707, and many people resented being told to 'lose' those 11 days.
There are references to 1752 as being the year that had '2 New Years' because those like the people of rural Fife chose to ‘reclaim’ those lost 11 days and made their New Year begin approximately 11 days after 25th December- naming the day as Handsel Monday.
It was on Handsel Monday that they did their First Footing from midnight and they had their presents from their employer. Auld Handsel Monday lasted in Fife for the best part of a century, perhaps even a bit longer in some places.
Phew! I hope I’ve got that explanation correct because it’s a little bit complicated.
These sites might be useful for further study:
I'm off now to celebrate Handsel Monday!