A little Bit Of Everything · History Facts

How to Celebrate the New Year: Medieval Style!

Happy new year everyone! Finally, it’s 2021, and here’s to a better one!

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas, I know I didn’t post last week but I thought it more important to spend it with my family. Might have only been the four of us, which is unusual, but my family has decided that since we are so close to getting a vaccine, a big celebration can wait until everything is a lot safer – there’s no point risking people’s lives when we are so close to the end of this thing!

So that’s that, and now we’re finally in the new year. Something which I’m sure a lot of people have been dreaming about. Normally people go “New Year, New Me” but this year I think people will just be thinking let’s keep on pushing through and staying safe until this whole pandemic is over.

With that being said, just like Christmas, I’m sure plenty of us couldn’t celebrate the new year how we wanted. I’m currently in tier 4 in the UK, which basically just means stay home and no mixing. Simple advise and I’m hoping that people can follow this guidance. And if you don’t, than shame on you really.

But anyway, since we can’t celebrate the new year how we would have wanted, I thought it would be a good idea to take a step back into the past and see how they would have done things during the medieval period.

I mentioned in a previous post about Medieval Festivities how your luck for the new year was based on the first person who walked through your door (a tall dark stranger with flat feet, who was also male, meant that you would have a lot of good luck for the new year – not exactly useful when we’re not meant to be mixing households), but there was so much more to their new year celebrations. So let’s delve into it!

Traditions Near and Far

Every country will have their traditions. But, understandably, they do vary from place to place. All the traditions have one common theme though, and that is that they are based around the sort of luck that they would bring the person. Everyone, even now, wants good luck for the new year. But how you get good luck does vary.

For example, in England during the Medieval times, it was customary to exchange gifts on New Year’s, since it was considered to bring good fortune for the coming year. I would love to get a few more presents on January 1st, but interestingly, New Year’s would have been celebrated on a different day altogether (but I’ll discuss that in a later point).

For Scotland and Ireland, the first footing was hugely important with regards to how lucky a household was going to be for the year. The first person to enter your house after midnight could make or break your household’s fortune for the rest of the year.

Some people believed a light haired person would bring good luck, for others, it had to be a dark complexioned man or boy, or someone who was flat footed (as mentioned earlier). I do find it interesting how the appearance of the first person in your house was made to be such a big deal!

Of course, on the opposite end of things, there were some people that you didn’t want to be the first visitor in your home. If you were a red head during the medieval period, then sorry, but you wouldn’t have received a very warm welcome on New Year’s Eve; red heads were thought to bring bad luck and grief.

This wasn’t the only tradition that Ireland had, on New Year’s Eve, you’d find it impossible to go to bed early unless you were deaf as they would have banged on the walls and doors of their home to chase out the evil spirits before ringing in the New Year. This would have been done on Oíche Chinn Bliana (Year’s End Night). No one wanted to bring evil spirits with them into the New Year.

They would have also made sure that their house was spotless – does anyone else use New Year’s as an excuse to get the house clean now? They did this as it meant that they would start the New Year off fresh. They would also have lit a candle in their window, laid an empty place at the table and would have left the door unlocked, as New Year was a time to remember the dead.

Things were different in other countries though. For example, in Poland, (as well as several other Eastern European countries) New year’s Eve is known as Sylvester after St. Sylvester (†335), whose Feast Day is December 31st (and the date of his death).

The legend is that St. Sylvester imprisoned and then managed to slew a dragon, who had escaped at the beginning of 1,000 AD. This was a huge deal, and was a cause for celebration. This was called St. Sylvester’s Eve.

It wasn’t just a day of celebration in Poland though, they had a few traditions to help make the day a success. For example, young boys would have dressed up as the devil and would have played pranks. On New Year’s Day as well, they would have baked bread. But not just any bread though, it would also have a ring or cross in it though (similar to the silver coin that would have been found in a Christmas pudding). If you found the ring, then marriage was on the horizon, but a cross meant a life in the clergy.

When Did They Celebrate New Year?

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New Year’s Day hasn’t always been the 1st January. In fact, it’s been on several different days throughout the years.

New Year’s Day was first declared as the 1st January by Julius Caesar in 45 BC. This was the start of the New Year celebration tradition. So there are two questions here: why did he chose this date, and why was it not celebrated later on?

Well to answer the first question, he chose the date because the month of January is named for the Roman God Janus, a two-faced God who looks to the future and past. So it kind of makes perfect sense to start the new year at the start of January, when we can look at our past year and be excited for the future year.

But this decision to celebrate New Year’s on that date was soon abolished by the Council of Tours in 567. This was only because it was considered pagan and unchristian like. They did have a date for the New Year though, but the dates changed. At various times and in various places throughout medieval Christian Europe, Medieval European countries observed the beginning of the New Year on different days. Some countries recognized December 25th, Christmas, as the beginning of the New Year.  Some others observed March 5th and Easter as the New Year.  However, most of medieval Europe recognized the New Year as March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation.

 It took 561 years for Europe to agree that January 1st was the start of the New Year.  Eastern European nations were the first to adopt the date in 1362 and Greece was the last to adopt it in 1923.

Note that this is Europe though, and in England things were a bit different regarding New Year’s Day!

England’s New Year’s date changed many times throughout its history (which was a common thing amongst all the European countries). But Anglo-Saxon England kept December 25th as the New Year, however, when William the Conqueror took over, he decreed that January 1st should be the New Year so it could coincide with his coronation, as well as the date of Christ’s circumcision (eight days after Christmas). 

Years later, England united with the rest of Europe and set their New Year as March 25th.  March 25th remained the beginning of the New Year in England until 1752 when they switched back to January 1st.

Just imagine if we were having to wait till March though to celebrate the New Year – we’d still be in 2020 right now 😮

Medieval Feast!

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The Feast of Fools is something that you might have heard of. This was a popular medieval festival that originated in France. It was celebrated on January 1st, where a mock ecclesiastical court was held, complete with a mock pope.

It was a day where the tables were turned and the lower classes dressed up and poked fun at the upper classes, harking back to the Pagan Roman festival of Saturnalia, where slaves were able to to speak freely, criticize their masters without punishment, and enjoyed a feast.

During the Feast of Fools, there was plenty of cross dressing, gambling, drinking, and risqué behaviour.

Naturally, this didn’t sit well with the Church and after repeated pressure and regulation attempts by ecclesiastic officials, the tradition petered out in the sixteenth century. This could also have been a major reason to why New Year’s wasn’t allowed on 1st January, and instead had to be linked to a Christian holiday (e.g. Christmas, Easter etc).

The Feast of Fools disappeared due to heavy suppression by the church.

But having said that, food was still an important way to bring in the New Year. Even if they celebrated new year on a different day to us, you can be sure that they would have had a feast! One day I plan to cook a medieval feast – now that would be something!

The various accounts we have from royal courts reveal that a huge amount of food could be served during these festivities (during the Christmas period). For example, the feast held by England’s King John on Christmas Day of 1213 was said to have included 400 head of pork, 3000 fowl, 15000 herring, 10000 eels, 100 pounds of almonds, two pounds of spices, 66 pounds of pepper, and 27 hogsheads of wine to wash it down!

The Twelfth Night

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So it’s pretty obvious that religion played a huge part in the medieval period.

The twelfth night, also known as Epiphany, was a very important day. Epiphany is the day on which the three wise men visited the infant Jesus, but it also marked the end of a winter time festival that began on All Hallows Eve (Halloween) and was widely celebrated with feasting, parties, games and pranks.

It was tradition for roles in society to be reversed for this short time, with the gentry and rich taking on the roles of servants, and serving the food at feasts to their staff (The Feast of Fools).

To this day there is still come confusion as to the exact date of Twelfth night – some believe it to be Epiphany Eve, 5th January and some Epiphany itself – 6th January. The confusion seems to arise from the fact that in medieval times the day ended at sunset, meaning Twelfth night would begin on the 5th and end on the 6th.

But I don’t know about you, but my family still make use of Epiphany, if not in the traditional sense, but it is the day that we take our decorations down in the house. A sad day indeed, but I like that some things never change – that throughout the years we still know that the end of the Christmas period is on the Twelfth Night, known as Epiphany.

Modern Celebrations

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Of course, one of the things that is so brilliant about learning how they would have celebrated the New Year during the Medieval period, is how it relates to us now.

The way we do things, stems from the past, hundreds and hundreds of years have led the human race to this point in time and I think that’s just fascinating.

I mean if it weren’t for Pope Gregory we might not have celebrated New Year’s Day on January 1st, as he changed it back to that date in 1582.

Of course, not everyone in Europe gave up their traditional practices. Many modern European towns and villages still celebrate or have revived Medieval New Year’s Day practices. For example, in Florence, Italy, there are live concerts and a huge procession to the Basilica of the Annunciation which take place on March 25. Locals and tourists alike take part in these springtime festivities, which honor the feminine mother of God who gives birth to divinity year after year, just as nature renews itself and offers up its earthly abundance again and again.

How amazing is that?

I’ve learnt so much about the New Year’s traditions when I was researching this post. I really had no idea about all the history about the actual day it would have been celebrated on.

Not to mention all the things that would have led to good fortunes for the year (certainly need a bit of luck this year, although I’m not so keen about having a complete stranger entire my home at the minute particularly as I’m in tier 4, but maybe next year…)!

I hope you all enjoyed learning about how New Year traditions!

Do you guys have any of your own family traditions? Normally my family would go out for a meal, and then come back home and watch Jools Holland until the New Year comes around. However, this time we just had a takeaway at home, so not much different. We still dressed up though, but as soon as we had our food we got into our pjs!

Did you do anything special to celebrate the new year, stayed in comfy clothing to your living room or did you just have an early night?

15 thoughts on “How to Celebrate the New Year: Medieval Style!

  1. Wow, what a fantastic post! Happy New Year to you as well. 😁 I’ve never ever realised this was how New Years was originally celebrated! Also, it’s crazy to know that New Years Day was moved around so much, I think nowadays that would be so confusing. This was a great post to read, normally New Year’s Eve, I would have a couple of pints in the pub, but not this year, I just wanted to relax and FaceTime you x


  2. I love learning about the fading of old traditions and the subtle ways in which the traditions are still practiced today! So many countries turn out in full to celebrate in hearty ways of old and, though the pandemic has effected group culture, it is so good to see the wholesome ways families carry on traditions!

    The Feast of Fools sounds like a sight to behold. Caesar certainly made his mark on the world; I believe many changes in calendar were due entirely to him.

    Thanks for sharing!


  3. This was such a fun read! It was so interesting to see how NYE was celebrated historically. The Feast of Fools sounds like it was definitely risque for the times. Also poor red heads haha thanks for this!


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