by Dr Jean Barclay

When it came to a winter festival, Handsel (or Hansel) Monday at the start of the year meant a great deal to generations of Scots. It was a time of rejoicing with visits to family, friends and neighbours, food and drink in plenty, and giving ‘handsels’ or presents to children and employees (1). Despite its excesses and high jinks, Handsel Monday was tolerated by the fathers of the Presbyterian kirk as preferable to the ancient festival of Yule, which they considered pagan, and its successor Christmas, which they regarded as ‘popish’ like other masses and saints’ days. But how did ‘Handsel Monday’ become ‘Auld Handsel Monday’?

Drawing of Handsel Monday scene

Confusion about dates arose when the calendar was changed in September 1752 from the Julian to the Gregorian, which was 11 days shorter (2).  To account for the difference the Westminster Parliament decreed that September 2nd should be followed by September 14th and the terms ‘old style’ and ‘new style’ began to appear in dates in official records.  Many working people resented the imposition of the new calendar with its loss of 11 days and Scottish die-hards began to celebrate Handsel Monday, not on the first Monday of the New Year, but on the first Monday after the 12th of January. Christmas and New Year or Hogmanay meant little but working people looked forward all year to their holiday on Auld Handsel Monday (3). 

Poster advising of Business half days for Old Handsel Monday, 1838

In the 1850s Auld Handsel Monday was in full swing in Dunfermline. It was ushered in with the glare of flambeaux and the blare of horns and from an early hour, men paraded through the town ‘first-footing’. Later people would go to ‘the toon’ where the streets were lined with stalls of goods.  The Sunday schools and churches held special services, the teetotal societies rejoiced over a cup of tea and the Dunfermline Instrumental Band gave their usual Auld Handsel Monday concert (4).  In1852 the entertainment included temperance soirees, juvenile gatherings, a penny soiree for the children in the Abbey, and another for the Roman Catholics (5)     

The Dunfermline Total Abstinence Society held an Old Handsel Monday soiree each year and on January 16th 1854 the performers in the Maygate Chapel included a North American Indian in native dress, musicians from Edinburgh and Mr. J. L. Toole, ‘the celebrated comic vocalist of the Theatre Royal of Edinburgh and Glasgow’.  In his memoirs Mr. Toole recalled that it had been a dour, dull evening in the grim, half-lit chapel and when he sang his comic songs to the severe old men and women on their hard pews ‘not a smile illuminated a single face’.  He enjoyed himself more when he went on to help at a party in the Episcopalian schoolroom in Pilmuir Street, where his singing and humour helped make ‘a happy hour or two for the young folks of gray Dunfermline on a Han’sel Monday night’ (6).            

From the Dunfermline Journal, 5th Jan 1855

The 1850s continued as before but by 1860 Auld Handsel Monday had reached its peak and change was on its way.   The Victorian Christmas had taken hold in England and was beginning to find favour in Scotland with advertisements for Christmas gifts and entertainments appearing in the newspaper columns and New Year was creeping in as an official holiday.  The older Dunfermline people were reluctant to accept change and kept Auld Handsel Monday going as long as possible.  In 1860 when the Total Abstinence Society wanted to hold their annual concert in the Music Hall on New Handsel Monday, January 7th, public outcry compelled them to revert to Auld Handsel Monday a week later, and other concerts and balls continued as before in the Corn Exchange and in the Masons’ Halls in Queen Anne’s Street and the Maygate.  On Handsel Tuesday 1860 the Dunfermline Monthly Fair included sweet and gingerbread stands and Cheap Jack stalls, while the space in front of the Music Hall was monopolised by merry-go-rounds, swings and shooting galleries (7).

Official change can be seen in the fact that some working people no longer had Auld Handsel Monday off and on January 12th 1861 the Dunfermline Press reported that the town had ‘presented a dull appearance, from the absence of the fair sex, who were mostly engaged at their work in the factories or occupied with household duties’.  In 1862 there was only one day’s holiday and on the Tuesday the High Street was dismal with only three stands, mainly because of ‘all the divisions which have taken place on this question of holidays’, the last of which had yet to come. In 1863 the first Monday and Tuesday of the year, instead of Handsel Monday and Tuesday, became the official holiday for the large workforce at Erskine Beveridge’s factory at St. Leonard’s. This was controversial and did not come about without heated meetings between those who wanted change for convenience sake and others, especially the remaining hand-loom weavers, who wanted to keep Auld Handsel Monday (8).

Despite this change, advertisements in the Dunfermline Press of January 10th 1863 showed that Auld Handsel Monday was still celebrated. The London- Dunfermline Association and similar groups in Glasgow and Edinburgh advertised their Auld Handsel Monday festivals and extended a welcome to visitors from Dunfermline, and several shopkeepers advertised their holiday wares. George Lauder of 8 High Street, for example, thanked his Noble Patrons for their custom during the last year and announced that he had a lot of cheese (no name) very fine and cheap and that Handsel Monday oranges were expected any day now, while A.Monteith, also in the High Street, offered ‘Good cheer for the Holidays’ in the form of ‘Dried Fruit, nuts, spices and jams, Old Malt Whiskey, French brandy, Jamaica rum, London Porter, Edinburgh and Burton ales and cordials, ham, including Glasgow Beef Hams and cheeses’, a few of which were slightly damaged and offered in pieces at 4d. a pound. Photographic studios had special offers, one offering ‘cheap portraits for the Holidays’ while another recommended for ‘handsels’ his reduced ‘cartes de visite’.      

Concert Advert from the Dunfermline Journal, 11th Jan 1856
From The Dunfermline Journal, 11th Jan 1856

On January 14th 1863 it was reported that ‘Monday was observed here as Auld Handsel Monday, and was chiefly remarkable for its dullness’.  The dreary weather was partly to blame but the main problem was ‘the division in the community as to the proper day to be held’ with half the people at work and half given a holiday. Such a state of matters ‘must soon work its own cure, and every lover of peace and pleasure will say – the sooner the better’.  Something of the dilemma can be seen in advertisements by the railway companies. On December 30th 1863 the North British Railway Company advertised trips for ‘New Handsel Monday’ from Saturday 2nd January to Monday 4th and on January 13th 1864 ‘Old Handsel Monday’ return tickets from Saturday 16th January to Monday 18th. Large numbers of young people took advantage of cheap railway tickets and forsook the attractions of Dunfermline for those of Edinburgh, Perth and Dundee.  The railways can be seen as a factor in the move away from Auld Handsel Monday as they encouraged people to visit towns where New Year was celebrated and seemed more practical and up-to-date.

Auld Handsel Monday continued to limp along but, according to an item in the Dunfermline Press, its character had changed. Although in 1863 it was ushered in with the usual noise of penny trumpets and the flare of flambeaux it sounded different. Handsel Monday used to be a time for ‘good old things’ – old customs and old Scottish songs – but now ‘we have all the misery of waking with none of the pleasure and ‘the horrid screeching of ‘Dixie’s Land’ and other American rubbish on Monday morning tortured the ear and disquieted the mind’ while the old Scottish melody seemed fairly extinguished.  There were a good number of sweetie stands about the Cross and on the High Street and players on the violin, bagpipes and penny whistle and several bands of ‘crippled jack-o’-tars’ but only in the evening did the town really come to life with well-attended concerts in the Music Hall and Corn Exchange (9).

In 1864 several works resolved ‘to sink the old dispute’ and join in keeping Old Handsel Monday, but this was only a brief reprieve (10).  In 1866 both Old and New Handsel Monday were celebrated in the town but in 1867 it was noted that the people of Dunfermline were now generally in favour of observing New Year and in 1867 the first Monday after the turn of the year officially became as a holiday.  In 1868 it was reported that on Auld Handsel Monday entertainment could be found at ‘several attractive places of amusement’, including the Balmoral Theatre, the Music Hall and Mr.Lamond’s Hall, but this was one of the last mentions (11).  To all intents and purposes Old and New Handsel Mondays were things of the past.   

Not entirely, however.  The old handloom weavers, in particular, remembered the old holiday and could reminisce about it in 1898 when they were treated to a special Auld Handsel Monday supper on January 17th, presided over by Provost Scobie.  The old weavers marched into the Maygate Masonic Hall, which was decorated with plants and banners, for a substantial meal of beef-steak pie, a pint of beer to ‘wash it down’ and plum pudding.  In letters and speeches, several people looked back to the old days when Hansel Monday was the highlight of the year.  Ex-Baillie William Inglis wrote that he did not think he could do better than by wishing everyone ‘A Merry Hansel Monday, words which 40 or 50 years ago were on the lips of everybody, old and young, in Dunfermline’. He recalled how the weavers would keep the shuttle flying at double speed from early morning to late at night to get an extra ‘cut’ into the warehouse so that they could buy the kebbock (a whole cheese) and a currant loaf (black bun) and something special to drink. It was, he recalled, the great day of the year and Christmas and New Year’s Day were nothing to it and passed more or less unnoticed.

Enough money had been collected to provide another Auld Hansel supper for the weavers in 1899 and this time St. Margaret’s Lecture Hall was used to accommodate the 105 old men (12). The dinners evolved into an Old Weavers’ Drive which was held each July from 1900 to 1915, and after some 150 years, Auld Handsel Monday was finally laid to rest.

Notes and sources:

Good accounts of Auld Handsel Monday can be found in the section on ‘Hogmanay and Auld Handsel Monday, in A. Stewart’s Reminiscences of Dunfermline, Edinburgh, 1886, and on-line in ‘Halloween-Hogmanay, Handsel and Auld Handsel Monday’, Disc 2013, Pitcairn Publications, Dunfermline, compiled by Sheila Pitcairn.

Thanks to the Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries for permission to include the cuttings from the Dunfermline Journal and the poster.

1.  A handsel was a gift exchanged by hand.  Old Handsel Monday lasted in Fife for about 100 years, a bit longer in other places.  

2. Catholic countries in Europe adopted the new calendar in 1582.  Although Scotland did not change at this time, in 1600 King James VI made January 1st the start of the year instead of Lady Day, March 25th, as previously.     

3. The word Hogmanay for New Year’s Eve is said to have come from the old French tongue for a gift at the new year and to have been brought to Scotland by Mary Queen of Scots.    

4. Dunfermline Press, April 24 1909.  The Instrumental Band was led by George Kirk as sergeant and Robert Walls, drummer. D. Thomson, ‘Anent Dunfermline’, Vol. 1, item 129, ‘Han’sel Monday’, and item 266.    

5. Ibid.

6. D. Thomson, ‘Toole’s visit to Dunfermline fifty-two years ago’, Dunfermline Press, August 4th 1906.

7. ‘Hansel Monday, Old’, D. Thomson, ‘Anent Dunfermline’, Vol. 7, item 533.

8. ‘Handsel Tuesday’, Dunfermline Press, January 16 1862.  ‘Handsel Monday’ in ‘When we were boys’, R. S. Mackie, 1911.  Among those seeking change were business people who found Auld Handsel Monday isolating and inconvenient and the parents of young people who were working away and had their mid-winter holiday at New Year.

9. ‘Auld Handsel Monday’, Dunfermline Press, January 14th 1863.

10. ‘Handsel Tuesday’, op. cit.

11. ‘Hansel Monday, Old’, op. cit.

12. Dunfermline Press, January 22 1898 and January 21 1899.