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Essay's of Hugh Haliburton (James Logie Robertson)
Hansel and Hansel Monday


"O gie the student his degree,
The advocate his hansel fee!"

In the time of Allan Ramsay the term hansel in its ordinary use signified, in Ramsay's own words, "the first money that the merchant gets." This meaning of the word, exactly as Ramsay restricted it, still obtains among the old-fashioned shopkeepers (merchants by courtesy) of the High Street of Edinburgh. The first coin received into the retail trader's till of a Monday morning is regarded as the hansel of the week's drawings. "How's business to-day, Mr Luckenbooth?" asks Mr Traveller in his cheery way on a Monday forenoon. "Just deein' awa'," replies the despondent merchant; "my till's gapin' for its hansel yet!" It is interesting to observe that there is a good deal of the original meaning of the word in the shopkeeper's use of it. It is undoubtedly in its origin a commercial term. Clearly, the composition of the word is "hand" and "sell." As thus compounded, it probably applied to a transaction of primitive barter, in which the articles exchanged passed at once into the hands of the contracting parties. It was delivery (i.e. sale) by hand the moment the bargain was made. The next stage in the development of the word was apparently to apply it to the first instalment of a bargain. A portion or sample "of the goods was handed over to-the purchaser, in earnest or as arks (the two words are identical) that the rest of the goods would follow in due course. As thus described, the ceremony of handselling—minus the sample or first instalment— may be seen any market day, where a couple of farmers are concluding a bargain. As everybody knows, this is done by touching or shaking hands. The bargain-makers do not necessarily part company at such a hand-shaking. It is not the ceremony of leave-taking that is gone through, but the empty form (which, however, is held as binding) of making offer on the one hand and accepting on the other. The hand-clasping at a marriage ceremony has the same meaning.

From its original commercial use, the word was soon applied in other relations. Thus, on the authority of Jamieson, a piece of bread eaten before breakfast used to be called a morning hansel by the people of Galloway. The stomach received an aries that a full meal was in preparation. It will be in the knowledge of every Scotsman that Burns's auld farmer hanselled in the New Year to his auld mare with a ripp of corn—i.e., with a few handfuls of unthreshed oats. The gift was by way of promise or earnest to "Maggie" that her master should not see her come to want in the ensuing year—that her "auld days would not end in starvin'" And, indeed, though the action meant that, the auld farmer confirmed it with words of explicit tenderness—

"My last fow—
A heapit stimpart I'll reserve ane,
Laid by for you."

Which means that if misfortune were to reduce him to his last bushel he should take good care to set aside a good half-peck of it for his "auld trusty servant." Hansel is sometimes employed to signify the first act of using anything. Thus, at a railway station near Buckhaven the other day, a buxom, fisher lassie was heard lamenting the loss of her umbrella:— "It was its hansel ootin'—its first hoist!"

The first Monday of the New Year has long been known in Scotland, more especially the northern half of the Lowlands, as Hansel-Monday, from the custom among people of the working class of asking or receiving gifts or hansel from their well-to-do neighbours, and from each other, on that day. It lingers in those rural districts where Christmas may pass unmentioned, and where New Year's Day is only marked by the luxury of an unaccustomed dram, and the interchange of good wishes at the libation of it The sticklers for the retention of the Hansel-Monday festivities reckon, of course, by the old style; but the introduction in some quarters of the new way of reckoning, and the growing popularity of Christmas and New Year's Day, the latter especially, are confining the old-fashioned holiday of old Hansel-Monday to a continually diminishing area, and the probability is that the twentieth century, which is already within cry, will make quick and quiet work in dispatching it.

While the practice of hanselling and being hanselled was not so long ago pretty universal in the country, and dates from times as ancient as Arthur of the Round Table (if I mistake not, there are incidental references to the practice at the court of King Arthur in the old metrical romances), the allocation of the first Monday of the year for the observance of the custom by servants calls for some explanation. It may be that the festivities of the first day of the year, as celebrated by the lords of the land, required the performance of extra duties by their servants, and that the latter had their turn of rejoicing and holiday-making on the first Monday after those festivities. This explanation hardly meets the case at all points, for when New Year's Day happens to fall on a Monday, it is kept in some districts as Hansel-Monday, while in others the holiday is deferred to the Monday following. It is thus a dispute whether Hansel-Monday is properly to be held on the first Monday of the New Year or on the first Monday after New Year's Day. The determination of the point must affect my explanation.

On farms, Hansel-Monday where it is kept is the great winter holiday of the year. Outdoor and indoor servants alike 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 Hansel-Monday. The necessary labours of the farm have to be done on that day by the members of his own household. Use and wont has given the day to his servants. Not only has he himself to help till their place, but he is expected to hansel them, from foreman to herdboy, 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. A notable feature of the manner in which country people celebrate Hansel-Monday is their evident desire to enjoy the whole twenty-four hours of the holiday. They are astir at the sma' hours after midnight, and it is near midnight again before they think of lying down. 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. Thereafter they begin a house-to-house visitation for gifts, while their awakened elders spend the day in feasting and drinking; taking part in raffles for currant loaves, watches wheelbarrows, or pigs; and drinking toddy in turn at each others' houses in the evening.


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