Jan 012019

I am finally back from my travels through Vietnam and Laos in time to wish you a joyous New Year, and peace, health, and happiness for 2019. Here’s a Scots custom for the day to mark the beginning of blogging for 2019 – without too many interruptions, I hope.

In Scotland, the first Monday of the New Year was traditionally known as Hansel Monday, or Handsel Monday, and gifts (Scots: hansels) were given at this time. Among the rural population of Scotland, Auld Hansel Monday, is traditionally celebrated on the first Monday after January 12. This custom reflects a reluctance to switch from the old (Julian) style calendar to the new (Gregorian) calendar.

The word “hansel” originates from a mix of an Old English word “handselen” which means “to deliver into the hand” and an Old Norse word “handsal” meaning “to seal a promise with a handshake,” and evolved into the Middle English “hansel” which refers to small tips and gifts of money given as a token of good luck, particularly at the beginning of something. The modern house-warming gift is a hansel. John Trotter Brockett’s 1825, A glossary of north country words, in use, describes Handsel Monday as an occasion “when it is customary to make children and servants a present.” On this day, tips of small gifts were expected by servants, as well as by the postman, the deliverers of newspapers, and all people who serve a house or houses. In this respect it is somewhat similar to Boxing Day, which eventually supplanted it. If the handsel was a physical object rather than money, tradition said that the object could not be sharp, or it would “cut” the relationship between the giver and the recipient. The day is known in Scots Gaelic as Diluain Traoighte (drained Monday).

It was custom when I was growing up not to give a new purse or wallet to someone without placing a token coin in it, and at one time this custom was known as “handseling a purse.” Not to do this supposedly meant that the purse would always be empty. Money received on Handsel Monday is supposed to insure monetary luck all for the rest of the year. Similar customs accrue to New Year’s Day in other parts of the world, where giving small tokens of food, especially green food (because money is green), ensures financial fortune in the coming year.

In his Statistical Account of Scotland (1792) John Sinclair notes:

It is worth mentioning that one William Hunter, a collier (residing in the parish of Tillicoultry, in Clackmannanshire), was cured in the year 1738 of an inveterate rheumatism or gout, by drinking freely of new ale, full of harm or yeast. The poor man had been confined to his bed. for a year and a half, having almost entirely lost the use of his limbs. On the evening of Handsel Monday, as it is called, some of his neighbours came to make merry with him. Though he could not rise, yet he always took his share of the ale, as it passed round the company, and in the end he became much intoxicated. The consequence was that he had the use of his limbs next morning, and was able to walk about. He lived more than twenty years after this, and never had the smallest return of his old complaint.

So, Handsel Monday has multiple benefits.

These days, people who make regular deliveries expect money in their Christmas “boxes” rather than small gifts, and I understand the change in customs. Nonetheless, I lament the passing of the old ways because money, while welcome, is impersonal. At Christmas in the Catskills I always spent several days making a wide range of cookies to make up mixed plates to give to friends and neighbors, inspired by an old friend who used to do the same. It seems like a lot of work, and it is – no question. You have to love baking and the expectation of the joy of the season you will bring. I don’t do this any more because I live in countries that do not celebrate Christmas, and I do not have the circle of friends close by that I once had. Still, I recommend the practice. I always made springerle along with other cookies. Here is a good video: