By Tim Porteus

I HOPE you had a good Christmas! We now look forward to the merriment of Hogmanay! These days in between, traditionally known as the Daft Days, are my favourite of Yule time.

Yet not so long ago the most popular focus of festivity was neither Christmas nor even Hogmanay, it was Handsel Monday.

It fell upon the first Monday after New Year, although there was some dispute as to the exact Monday it should be celebrated, for some measured the date by the old calendar.

This was the case for the country folk in East Lothian, or Haddingtonshire as it was then known. So Auld Handsel Monday fell for them on the first Monday after January 12.

It was the country folk’s winter holiday because Christmas and Yule festivities had for so long been banned by the Kirk.

The word 'Handsel' apparently comes from an old Saxon word which means to 'give by hand'.

On Handsel Monday the family gathered together and shared gifts and social time, which for much of the 19th century remained the main winter festival of the rural poor in East Lothian.

The East Lothian writer and poet James Lumsden captured the atmosphere of this now forgotten holiday in one of his poems about the day.

He tells us the children would wake up all excited, and the merriment would begin as the dawn of this winter’s day heralded a special time of conviviality and reunion:

“By screich o' morn the bairns are up,

"And loud the auld folk rousin';

"What braws are donn'd, what sangs are conn'd,

"What daffin' an' carousin'!"

It was a time when family members made huge efforts to return home and celebrate together. Food had been specially kept for the occasion and those at home awaited the arrival of others who they had perhaps not seen since the previous Handsel Monday.

Lumsden says streams of young folk left the towns for their homes in the countryside. Domestic servants, shop assistants, apprentices all set off in the early hours on Handsel Monday as if on a pilgrimage, to share in the celebrations:

“Sune ran we hame wi' anxious haste

"For our grand Hansel denner,

"Pork chops and dumplins – lord a feast –

"A gorge for saunt or sinner!”

We can picture the scene as daughters and sons returned, greeted by parents and younger siblings, grandparents and old friends. It was a time of gift giving, with family and neighbours sharing treats.

But the rich were expected to give too, as it was the tradition that masters and employers would give gifts of drink, food and even a financial contribution to the community’s festivities. In fact, the social norms were often overturned on this day, with the landowners serving and working for the poor on this one special day.

While it had no religious content, Handsel Monday was in its own way sacred. It was a longed for day off for those who worked hard with little in the way of holidays. It was Christmas Day, Boxing Day and Hogmanay all wrapped into one.

And as the day wore into evening, the merriment would build. People made the most of this precious social time together, with stories, dance and song:

“Syne sune wi' reels, an' strathspeys even,

"The wee cot housie dirled,

"As a' the blasts o' yearth an' heaven

"Were 'gainst its boukie hurled;

"Braw lads and lasses lap and skirled.”

As is always the case with such gatherings, time flew and too soon the day would draw to a close:

“But daffin' jigs, an' sangs, an' tales,

"Sped far too swith the hours on.”

Sad farewells would have to be made. Mothers and fathers hugged tightly their grown children as they prepared to set off back to their employment. Old and new friends from near and far, who had come to share the day, parted to their duties.

They would have to wait another year for the next Handsel Monday gathering. Who knows what fortune and fate would have in store before that time:

“For freends were met whom morrow's gales

"Wad waft apart life's course on

"Anither year, and maybe ne'er

"Again while time's flood roars on,

"Might they e'er meet, or even greet,

"This fickly warl's shores on,

"Tho' here this day!”

And yet it was to be Handsel Monday itself whose fate was sealed, as it faded in importance compared to Hogmanay and its traditions of gift giving and family time overtaken by Christmas.

It has became part of our Auld Lang Syne, yet its spirit is perhaps now spread over a thankfully longer time of winter festivity.

Happy New Year, when it comes.

With thanks to Electric Scotland website for the copy of the poem.