Ever wondered why we sing Auld Lang Syne every New Years Eve? Or, the reason why we take our decorations down in the first week of January? The answer? It’s thanks to our industrious ancestors, the Victorians.
The historians at Blists Hill Victorian Town in Shropshire have delved into the archives to lift the lid on the Victorian traditions that have made their way into the 21st century, as well as how the residents of Blists Hill would have celebrated the dawn of the coming year at the end of the 19th century.
The Victorians were no strangers to a party, and just like today, families and friends would gather together on December 31 to wave goodbye to old and welcome in the new.
It’s at these parties that the tradition of singing Auld Lang Syne originated. Originally a poem penned by Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1788, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ (which roughly translates to ‘for old times sake’) was first sung on Hogmanay in Scotland and quickly spread throughout the British Isles. It must have been popular because it’s a tradition that has stood the test of time, not just in the UK but across the pond too.
Lauren Stephenson, Curatorial Officer at The Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust, explained more about the traditions.
She said: "The era was one full of superstitions and the Victorians believed that warding off evil spirits was vital to ensure their year was full of prosperity and good health.
"On New Years Eve in the 1800’s, the streets of towns like Blists Hill would have been filled with the sound of drums as young men partook in the ancient practice of ‘wassailing’ (an Old Saxon word for ‘good health’) wandering around the town making noise to ward off spirits. Church bells would also have rung out across the Shropshire at the strike of midnight to chase away evil.
"The evening would have been a busy one for young men in the town as they roamed around offering to be the first person to cross the threshold of people’s homes in what was known as ‘first footing’. It was believed to be unlucky if the ‘first-foot’ of the year to enter the home belonged to a woman so young men would cross the threshold for a small fee, bringing gifts of coal, food, whiskey or greenery to ensure a prosperous and healthy year ahead.
"Ensuring that cupboards and pockets were full at the year’s start as well as making sure a fire was blazing through the New Year also helped to ensure prosperity and warmth for the new year."
Even a New Year's clean was a tradition for the Victorians, and celebrations and festivities surrounding Christmas and New Year would continue until Twelfth Night, on January 6, which marked the Feast of the Epiphany.
That is the date it is thought the Three Wise Men were guided by the star to Bethlehem and so, on January 6 all decorations were removed to ensure the household good luck in the coming year.
So, it turns out it wasn’t just the Industrial Revolution that the Victorians gave us, and without them, New Year might look very different.