Life in Elizabethan England Next

Gifts at the New Year

New Year feasting and gift giving goes back to the Romans, who started the year on January 1.

Although the legal year starts in March, the midwinter custom is too entrenched to change.

Gifts are given at New Year's, not on Christmas day. Such giving is mentioned in every full set of household accounts available between 1400-1550.

Christmas has not yet been personified, or associated with St Nicholas. No one in England expects to receive gifts from a supernatural agent such as Father Christmas or Santa Claus. However, you might hire a fool for the day, and give him that job.

New Year's gifts to the Queen include embroidered sleeves and jeweled fans

Courtier's gifts given to the Queen include:

  • Gold coins in an embroidered pouch
  • Garments (sleeves, foreparts, partlets, suites of ruffs, etc.)
  • Sweet bags (scented, usually embroidered pillows, sometimes with a pocket for a coin)
  • Jewelled fan
  • Looking glass
  • Embroidered smock
  • Jewelry (for example, the Heneage jewel)

Gifts to the Queen from the royal household are often related to the office: a marzipan chessboard and chessmen from the Master Cook, a pot of green ginger from the doctor, a fancy meat knife from the Cutler, a gilded quince pie from the Sergeant of the Pastry, and so on.

From the Queen, a courtier can generally expect to receive a silver cover cup of a particular weight, delivered by messenger, or picked up on a voucher.

Schoolboys at Eton play games to win prizes, and make presents of verses to their masters and each other.

Among ordinary folk, according to Ben Jonson, gifts may include oranges, a bunch of rosemary, brooches, marzipan, and wine.

Prosperous citizens may send gifts of fowl or rabbits to the mayor, who will provide a feast in return (using the gifts, we presume).

In one account, the earl of Northumberland was awakened on New Year's morning by minstrels, followed by a fanfare of trumpets. He received his gifts, and then gave gifts to his household. He held a feast at noon, processing into the Hall in great state. He then watched a play followed by a bergomask, interspersed with pageants.

Note: The celebration of the day after Christmas as Boxing day is not recorded till 1621.

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22 March 2008 pkm