Old Year’s Night in East Anglia of yesteryear

PUBLISHED: 06:28 30 December 2017

Midnight countdown...: Old Year's Night was a time for local traditions - and putting on your dancing shoes. Picture: Thinkstock

Midnight countdown...: Old Year's Night was a time for local traditions - and putting on your dancing shoes. Picture: Thinkstock


Well, 2018 is nearly here. As the old year enters its last couple of days, Trevor Heaton looks back to East Anglian writers for glimpses of celebrations in days gone by and reflects on an often poignant time of the calendar.

Everyone calls it New Year’s Eve these days. But maybe not everyone; not round these parts anyway. There’s still many local folk who prefer the name ‘Old Year’s Night’.

And that, in a nutshell, sums up the unique character of this time of the year. It’s a time of beginnings, but also endings. It’s a time for partying, a time to look forward with optimism to a new year rich in opportunities.

But it’s also a time for reflecting on a year gone past, perhaps remembering sombre news events or loved ones we will see no more. No wonder Janus, the Roman god of endings and beginnings (and thought to be where we get ‘January’ from) was depicted with two faces.

In past times, New Year was associated with many customs, all of them designed to bring good luck and thus set the pattern – hopefully – for a safe, healthy and prosperous year to follow.

EDP essayist Eric Fowler (‘Jonathan Mardle’) had a theory that we didn’t have as many New Year customs as other places because of the combination of strong East East Anglian Puritanism and the late-19th century agricultural depression.

But look under the surface and there were some to be found. Some still are: many people will not like to open up a new calendar before those midnight chimes on December 31. The new one has to have its face turned to the wall.

One household Old Year’s Night essential was to clear up all the ashes and rubbish out of the house, wash all dirty clothes and bed linen and throw out any dirty water.

One correspondent wrote in 1960 that it was still ‘quite common’ in East Anglia to see the Old Year out of the back door and the New Year through the front.

In our part of the world we used to have our own version of ‘first footing’, now found mainly in Scotland and northern England. In our version, a man or boy would visit the house soon after midnight, carrying bread, coal and herrings as signs of plenty to ensure a prosperous year. The herring element perhaps hints at this being more of a Great Yarmouth/ Lowestoft tradition than elsewhere.

In Suffolk there was also a custom known as ‘dipping the Bible’. On the first night of the New Year you slept with a Bible under the pillow. On waking up in the dark you picked a page at random, marking it with a pin. Once you had light to see the page, you would then interpret the verse you’d picked (hopefully) as a good omen.

Where old traditions fade, new ones come in. Does Drayton, near Norwich, still have a reputation for hosting one of the best New Year’s Eve village parties in Norfolk, I wonder? Beginning as a small private party in the late 1920s, its reputation grew and grew until by 1952 people were coming from ‘long distances’ to take part. Organisers had had to return £100 that year to disappointed would-be revellers who couldn’t get a ticket.

The Drayton do attracted the great and the good from Norwich and surrounding areas, business people and farmers, even a large contingent from Norwich City FC.

‘One glance at the way every inch of parking space was full gave the impression that Drayton was a very prosperous little village,’ a reporter wrote. ‘A glimpse of all the guests in evening dress standing around well-stocked tables confirmed that impression.’

It might just be a sense of nostalgia, but leafing through the old cuttings you really do get a sense of community, a proper sense of occasion. We might not do New Year quite like the Scots do Hogmanay, but this was a time for putting on your glad-rags – and your dancing shoes.

Take New Year’s Eve 1953, saying goodbye to that momentous year of flood disaster, the conquest of the Everest, and the joy at the Coronation of a new Queen. Norwich city streets might have been silent as the old year drew to a close, but behind the doors of social clubs and grand civic halls, an estimated 2,000 people were tripping the light fantastic.

‘The casual visitor might have thought he was in a dead city,’ the reporter wrote, ‘unless he looked inside the churches and the dance halls. At the stroke of midnight London Street was deserted. Even the rain had stopped and only a solitary policeman was to be seen.’

From the Norfolk Caledonian Society’s Hogmanay Ball at St Andrew’s Hall to the thousand dancers who crammed on to three separate dance floors at the Samson and Hercules on Tombland, these folk were determined to party.

New year’s spirit abounded, then, which was not bad going considering that – even on this party night-of-nights – the city’s pubs shut their doors at 11pm. Well, officially, anyway.

If you wanted an alternative to revelry, then Watch Night services at St Michael-at-Plea in the heart of the city, and St Paul’s in Hellesdon, offered a chance to reflect on the past year in penitential style and make some serious pledges of New Year resolutions.

It’s always been tricky to stick to the latter. Alice Sterry spoke for many in 1954 when she wrote: ‘Resolutions? Oh no! Not this year. Not again. We have made only one resolution this year; that is, to make no resolutions.’

But she then went on to qualify this: ‘At least, not for the year; we rather think we will make them new every morning, thus giving them hope of life.’ And the real key, Alice said, was to make them modest ones.

And talking about new beginnings, in old East Anglia after the arrival of the New Year we would now be looking forward to Plough Monday, the first Monday after Epiphany, the traditional start of the farming year. That day was accompanied by another tradition, especially in Norfolk – Plough Pudding, basically a suet pud with a filling of pork sausagemeat, bacon, sage and onion (and having had it a few times over the years I can confirm that it’s delicious but, boy, you won’t want your supper…).

In Norfolk and the Fens Plough Monday was often a day of revelry, where a decorated plough was taken round the village by the farmhands, who called at houses in the hope of some winter-easing largesse.

So another year is about to begin. Before we know it it’ll soon be time for snowdrop walks, the proclamation of Lynn Mart, and the hedgerows shrugging off their winter coats of snow and ice. And Shrove Tuesday and Easter and… actually, I’m not altogether sure I’ll find the time to reflect much on 2017, after all.

Back in 1968, Jonathan Mardle was revealing his own New Year tradition to readers. ‘Having performed the last rites of the Old Year at the office, I went home… My wife and I have a custom, on New Year’s Eve, of opening the door to listen to the muffled and distant peal of St Peter’s ringing the old year out, then the twelve strokes of midnight, then the “tr-r-ang, tr-r-ang!” of the thirteen bells “firing” all at once, then the joyous peal that rings in the New Year in. Then we go back to the warm firelight, and fill our glasses, and I kiss her a “happy New Year”.’

A peaceful, healthy and prosperous 2018 to you all.

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