In the 17th Century, Christmas Day was more than just a religious date – it marked the beginning of the traditional twelve days of celebrating, feasting, and drinking but was also a flashpoint in the political and cultural turmoil of the English Civil Wars. Over the twelve days, we’re going to be exploring some of the Christmas customs and history from the 1640s and 1650s…
A very happy New Year to you all, as we continue our journey through the customs and history of the Twelve Days of Christmas during the 17th Century!
The first day of January was the most important day after Christmas in the Twelve Days and was known as ‘New Year’s Day’ even though the year did not technically change until 25 March, otherwise known as Lady Day or The Feast of the Annunciation.
Unlike our modern tradition of exchanging gifts on Christmas Day, the English in the 1600s presented gifts on New Year’s Day, though much of this was in the upper echelons of society:
As the king put on his shoes that morning, trumpets sounded and a present arrived from the queen, followed by servants of the leading courtiers each bearing gifts from them. In her own chamber, the queen received hers. The royal couple had arranged for reciprocal presents, usually in cash, to be sent out to the officers of the household and to the chief lat and clerical dignitaries of the realm. If the latter were at their own seats, the gifts were carried thither by Yeomen of the Guard. 
This was repeated in the residences of other magnates, while gentry exchanged presents with their servants  and religious institutions gave to their own staff and each other. Some great nobles would send gifts to the King or other peers, from whom they expected or received patronage.
What is not clear, according to historian Ronald Hutton, is whether this tradition definitely continued all the way down the social order, though Samuel Pepys mentions New Year’s gifts between 1660 and 1669 so it’s suggested that gift-giving at New Year’s Day played an important part of the Twelve Days regardless of one’s standing.
New Year’s Day was, like all of the Twelve Days of Christmas, a day for feasting, drinking, and celebration. While suggestions that the rich were required to provide ‘open house’ for the poor throughout the period is an exaggeration, there was certainly charity aplenty, especially as the cold, harsh realities of the civil wars began to bite. This largesse, however, was highly localised and probably only really applied to one’s own extended family. Everyone felt the pinch during the 1640s and ’50s, though the ‘Christmas Spirit’ was still alive and well.
Most of the superstitions around the day relate to the day before – New Year’s Eve – though many of them are more modern variations of local customs that have received more widespread attention over the last 200 years, such as cleaning the house, taking out the ashes from the fire, and clearing all debt.
The making and breaking of New Year Resolutions is also nothing new – Pepys wrote in December 1661: ‘I have newly taken a solemn oath about abstaining from plays and wine which I am resolved to keep’. He lasted a matter of weeks.
The effusive traditional celebrations in Scotland to mark the turning of the year also have their roots in the middle of the 17th Century, though it’s a mistake to regard it as evidence of deep psychological differences between the two countries.  Well ahead of their English contemporaries, the Presbyterian Scottish church banned the celebration of Christmas in 1583 and, despite the attempt by James VI/I to reintroduce it to the calendar, the hardline Glasgow Assembly restored the ban in 1638.
Although England followed suit with various anti-Christmas ordinances and laws in the 1640s and ‘50s, the importance of 25 December was restored to the calendar as soon as Charles II regained his throne … but only in England. The Scottish church continued its hostility to the suspiciously-Roman Catholic festival and, instead, encouraged observance of the secular 1 January, leading to the world-famous Hogmanay celebrations we know now. Indeed, the earliest citation of the use of the word ‘Hogmanay’ in either England or Scotland is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, from around 1680. 
And if you’ve overindulged while welcoming in the new year, be sure to check out these early modern cures for the sins of gluttony…
 Ronald Hutton, The Rise and Fall of Merry England, the ritual year 1400-1700
 Steve Roud, The English Year
 Roud ibid.
 Roud ibid.