Scotland's lost celebration of Handsel Monday

For more than 500 years, many Scots considered Handsel Monday as the great winter holiday of the year.

Handsel Monday was the party of the year in many parts of rural Scotland until the late 19th Century when workers got a day off and gifts from their masters. Detail of painting the Blind Fiddler by David Wilkie, 1806. PIC: Creative Commons.
Handsel Monday was the party of the year in many parts of rural Scotland until the late 19th Century when workers got a day off and gifts from their masters. Detail of painting the Blind Fiddler by David Wilkie, 1806. PIC: Creative Commons.

The first Monday of the New Year was a day of family and merriment with small gifts exchanged between neighbours and friends.

The word “handsel” originates from the old Saxon word which means “to deliver into the hand”.

With the holiday a great celebration among rural and farming folk, particularly in the Lowlands, it was usual for workers to receive a treat from their masters.

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    On Handsel Monday, half a crown or a shilling would often be collected from the big house, with a piece of cake and glass of toddy also shared while the bosses tended to the graft of the day.

    Auld Handsel Monday was traditionally celebrated on the first Monday after old New Year of January 12.

    It later shifted to the first Monday of the New Year although some traditionalists continued to observe the original holiday.

    Some debate surrounded when the holiday should be marked if January 1 fell on a Monday.

    What is clear, is that Handsel Monday was held in great affection by many working Scots.

    Fife and Perthshire were two areas of Scotland where Handsel Monday was celebrated long into the 19th Century, despite New Year’s Day becoming the holiday of choice in cities such as Dundee and Glasgow.

    A report in the Dunfermline Press in 1890 said: “On farms, Auld Hansel-Monday, where it is kept, is the great winter holiday of the year.

    “Outdoor and indoor servants have a complete escape from bondage for the day, and many a farmer will own that the hardest day’s work for him and his wife throughout the year occurs on Handsel Monday.

    “The necessary labours of the farm have to be done on that day by the members of his household.

    “Not only has he himself to fill their place, but he is expected to hansel them, from foreman to herd-boy; and part of the hansel almost invariably includes a gift of a little money.

    “In one view of the matter, it is a wholesome reversal of relations between rustics and their employers.”

    It was usual for workers to get up extra early on Handsel Monday so they had as much time as possible to enjoy the holiday.

    “In their impatience to have the holiday commence, young people usually waken the villages by kicking old tin pans at unearthly hours of the morning through the quiet streets,” one report said.

    The traditional breakfast would be fat brose, made from beef fat poured on oatmeal, with bonfires then lit after the first meal of the day.

    House to house visits would then be made with gifts exchanged with raffles sometimes held. Typical prizes included currant loaves, watches, wheelbarrows and pigs.

    One custom at East Wemyss was to visit Well Cave and drink from St Margaret’s Well to insure good health and luck. Songs would be sung and presents swapped.

    On January 6, 1870, the Perthshire Advertiser noted the celebrations of Handsel Monday - described as the “holiday-in-chief” of the year - in Auchterarder .

    It was marked with “much noise and boisterous mirths,” the newspaper said.

    “Boys, carrying flambeans, began to perambulate the town shortly after 12 o’clock and from that hour till morning the streets resounded with their hideous noise.”

    People, who were “well fortified withing”, braced the mud and Scotch mist to enjoy the night with public houses drawing large crowds with a concert also performed.

    “A few fist blows were exchanged later in the evening, but this appeared to be the head and front of the offending,” the report added.

    In November 1886, a public meeting was held in Dunfermline to discuss whether to observe the annual winter holiday on New Year’s Day instead of Handsel Monday.

    The meeting held from former Provost Robert Robertson, described Handsel Monday like an “old friend” who couldn’t be parted from “without a pang”.

    The newspaper report said: “In his younger days, Handsel Monday was the day of all days - the principal day of the year, and a day of much pleasure.

    “Then it was that family circles met together. Grandfather and grandmother, father, mother and family, all met together, There were no strangers admitted to the family circle then. Children came many miles...and if there was one member of the family absent, there was a sad blank.

    “There was no teetotalism then, but in decent families there was no hard drinking. It was a great day, and because of that it was long looked forward to.”

    The town decided to switch its winter holiday to January 1 to bring it in line with Scotland’s changing tastes.