As the Christmas decorations come down, trees disappear from living rooms and New Year Resolutions kick in, it is hard to imagine anyone in Scotland wanting to make merriment on what for many is the first day back at work. Yet not so long ago, today would have been the most important day of the festive year in many people’s calendars.
The first Monday of January was known as Hansel (or Handsel) Monday, also known as Diluain Traoighte in Gaelic. It was marked by giving small gifts, tips or tokens (known as handsels) to servants, children and beggars, or to someone you owe a debt of gratitude. If you are given silver on Hansel Monday you are guaranteed good luck with money for the rest of the year. However, you should never give someone a sharp object as this will cut apart your friendship.
Whilst modern Scotland has embraced ‘Dry January’, our ancestors invited friends and family for long drinking sessions as part of the Handsel Monday celebrations. 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.
Some places were more enthusiastic than others in their celebrations of Handsel Monday, and the tradition seems to have been particularly popular in Fife. The inhabitants of Crieff in the 1800s seem to have been especially rowdy, seeking drunken revenge on neighbours who had upset them by blocking chimneys and blowing penny whistles through keyholes in the middle of the night. In 1831, even the local instrumental band were noted for their drink-fuelled brawling. 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 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 stated.
Sadly, the tradition seems to have died towards the end of the 19th century and was absorbed into other festivities such as Hogmanay and Christmas.