On the eleventh day of Christmas, My true love sent to me . . . eleven pipers piping . . .
What's the eleventh day, January 4? Nothing special, according to the calendar. There’s the Yuletide superstars, Christmas Eve, Christmas, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s, Twelfth Night and the Feast of the Epiphany (otherwise known as The Day We Take Down the Christmas Tree) … so an in-between day like January 4th tends to fall between the cracks. We’re past the excitement of Christmas and New Year’s, we may still be dealing with a little festive clutter, remaining guests, leftovers, or we may still be traveling or catching up with friends. And we may not yet have summoned the energy to go fully back to work (even if we’re there).
It's kind of a lull day, this quiet January 4th, a time to rest, sit down with the gifts and enjoy them, to begin reading some of the books we got as gifts (or acquired for ourselves – I’m known to take a shopping tax in the bookstores – one for them, one for me; two for them, one for me…).
Perhaps we’ve sorted out our New Year’s resolutions if we made any – perhaps we’ve had enough time to test a few and give them up as unrealistic. This year, I didn’t make any strenuous resolutions – just the intention to treat myself and my loved ones as kindly as I can. I figure that covers just about everything.
When did the New Year’s resolution come about? It’s one of those muddy history mysteries that reaches back a long way to ancient cultures and erstwhile promises to behave better and appease the gods (as in, Please don’t strike me down, I’ll return the cow I borrowed from the priest!) with demonstrations of noble intentions and libations. Just about every culture, no matter when their new year occurs (January, February and March seems to cover it in the calendars of most ancient and medieval cultures), marks the chance that a new year offers to begin fresh. It’s a perfect time for a new start, time to wipe out the old slate, forget and forgive, and create anew. It’s the perfect time for a Do-Over if you need one. That next New Year’s Eve can seem pretty far off.
But we weren’t always making New Year’s resolutions. Early on, people were more likely to give gifts to mark the new year. In ancient Rome, the custom was for the lesser strata of society to give gifts and tokens to the upper strata so that merchants and servants could curry a little favor where needed. By the Middle Ages, gift-giving on New Year’s was more the custom than giving gifts at Christmas.
In the lavish French courts of the 14th century, for instance, New Year’s Day and the few days following was a time when elaborate, expensive gifts were given by king, lord, knight and master of a household to servants, lords and ladies of the court, merchants, neighbors, the Church and so on. If you were a loyal and lucky servant, you might be given a gorgeous ring, necklace, jeweled belt or pick up some glittering plate for your cupboard or a sumptuous fur-lined brocaded robe. A day or two after the king or the lord gave gifts to servants, the queen or the lady of the manor would bestow New Year’s gifts on her favorites as well.
And of course in addition to a nice new sparkly, you’d also turn your thoughts heavenward and make your peace with heaven for the new year, with promises to be better, more devout, more charitable and so on. Knights sometimes renewed their chivalric vows in court during spectacular feasts. All in all, New Year’s resolutions began early on with religious promises and prayers, and later evolved to promises to ourselves.
The gift giving at New Year’s continued after the medieval era, with lavish gifts still being handed out in the Tudor and Renaissance courts. The Reformation and centuries of religious reform put a damper on the extravagant gifts and demanded the focus be on improving one’s miserable soul, but the custom of presents managed to survive. By the 19th century, British families often followed a tradition of a little gift exchange on New Year’s, though instead of heavy ruby rings and furry robes, it was more likely to be a few new coins or an embroidered handkerchief left anonymously and discreetly at one’s place setting at breakfast or supper.
This year, if you’re like me, your New Year’s resolutions are on the modest, attainable side, and I won’t ask what they are (unless you want to share!). Instead – I’ll ask this question:
If you could make a New Year’s resolution for your favorite literary character, what would that be?
Scrooge – that one’s easy. “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.” I think we can safely say he probably kept his resolutions, for fear of the nightmares returning with a vengeance.
“New Year's Day now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”
--– Mark Twain
Happy New Year to all -- may 2013 bring you love, luck and all good things!