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Why New Year? by Arthur Machen


When I was a boy, which is a good many years ago, there was a very queer celebration on New Year's Day in the little Monmouthshire town where I was born, Caerleon-on-Usk. The town children—village children would be nearer the mark since the population of the place amounted to a thousand souls or thereabouts—got the biggest and bravest and gayest apple they could find in the loft, deep in the dry bracken. They put bits of gold leaf upon it. They stuck raisins into it. They inserted into the apple little sprigs of box, and then they delicately slit the ends of hazel nuts, and so worked that the nuts appeared to grow from the ends of the box-leaves, to be the disproportionate fruit of these small trees. At last, three bits of stick were fixed into the base of the apple, tripod-wise; and so it was borne round from house to house; and the children got cakes and sweets, and—those were wild days, remember—small cups of ale. And nobody knew what it was all about.

And here is the strangeness of it. Caerleon means the fort of the legions, and for about three hundred years the Second Augustan Legion was quartered there, and made a tiny Rome of the place, with amphitheatre, baths, temples, and everything necessary for the comfort of a Roman-Briton. And the Legion brought over the custom of the strena (French, étrennes) the New Year's gift of good omen. The apple, with its gold leaf, raisins and nuts, meant: 'good crops and wealth in the New Year.' It is the Latin poet, Martial, I think, who alludes to the custom. He was an ungrateful fellow; somebody sent him a gold cup as a New Year's gift, and he said that the gold of the cup was so thin that it would have done very well to put on the festive apple of the day.

Well, I suppose the Second Augustan was recalled somewhere about a.d. 400. The Saxon came to Caerleon, and after him the Dane, and then the Norman, and then the modern spirit, the worst enemy of all, and still, up to fifty years ago, the Caerleon children kept New Year's Day, as if the Legionaries were yet in garrison. And I suppose that Caerleon was the only place south of the Tweed where people took any festal notice at all of the first day in the year. For it is not an old English festival at all. It is distinctly Latin in origin. The Latin peoples have always feasted the day; socially, it ranks far above Christmas in France. Where then do we get it? The answer is that we get it from the country where the whisky comes from. It is a Scottish feast. The Scots call it Hogmanay—a word that comes from an old song with the Latin burden, hoc in anno, 'in this year'—and the Scots who dwell amongst us have so popularized the celebration that it flourishes in England, so that we fancy it an old English custom. And the reason why the Scots keep New Year's Eve and New Year's Day with all the solemnities of whisky and good resolutions and elbow-joining and Auld-lang-syneing is that for many hundred years Scotland maintained the closest relations with France. Even to this day, I suppose, there are many Scots who would speak of table-linen as 'napery,' a cup as a 'tassie,' a leg of mutton as a 'gigot,' and a wild cherry as a 'gean.' In France, the guigne is a fruit half-way between the ordinary cherry and the morella, neither as sweet as the one nor as 'dry' as the other. France, indeed, has left all manner of trace on Scottish life. A small country town in Scotland reminds the travelled Englishman strangely of many a dull little town which he has visited in France; the sort of town which the French themselves call 'un petit trou de province.' The small Scots town is not a bit like the small English town; it lacks utterly the smugness, the warm, red brick, comfortable appearance that one finds in such places as Amersham, in Buckinghamshire, Brandon, in Norfolk—or Suffolk?—and Marlborough, in Wiltshire. The county town of Scotland is French, with a certain northern grim ness about it, and if there is an old castle anywhere near, it will have the French tourelles, or 'pepperpot' turrets. And the cakes in the confectioner's shop might be matched in France, but hardly in Bond Street, for their choice elaboration, their appeal, not only to the palate, but the eye. And then the cooking: your lodging may be of the humblest, but your landlady will serve you such dishes in the way of Scots Broth and Collops as you may pray for vainly all England over. And after you have finished your broth, the meat which made it will appear on the table, garnished with its attendant herbs and vegetables; just as in France, in many country houses, the bouilli, the beef that made the soup, is served after the soup plates have been taken away.

Scotland, then, is largely a land of French custom, and thus, ultimately, of Roman custom. The Scots Law is largely Roman Law. They have no coroner in Scotland. The Procurator Fiscal 'precognoses' the case as the Procureur de la République makes his 'instruction,' his preliminary inquiry in France. And so, Scotland has given us her Latin-French festival of New Year's Day. And it has 'caught on' wonderfully. Not, I think, quite in the true spirit of its native lands, Rome and France and Scotland. I spoke of 'good resolutions' as part of the New Year ritual; but that, perhaps, is our grave English contribution to the feast. We speak of a 'Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,' and I believe that no Englishman is quite all mirth as the clock begins to strike midnight on December 31st. He may wish to be purely jolly; but somehow a tinge of solemnity will break in on his jollity. There will never be quite the abandonment of Christmas in our New Year's mirth. We may be as worldly as we will; but in the last five minutes before the bell of twelve, I believe that a little of the Watch Night spirit of the Methodists finds its way into the cups and strikes a silence about the board.


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