New Year's Gifts in Early Modern England

I know this is different to what I have previously shared on this blog, but I was doing some research into this yesterday (just out of general interest), and thought I'd compile together some thoughts. It's just so interesting, and I thought you might find the same... 


New Year celebrations are not, of course, something new — though they weren’t always celebrated on the 1st of January. England actually used to celebrate new year on the 25th of March (which, in many ways, feels rather intuitive since this aligns with the coming of Spring in the northern hemisphere). Until 1582, Europe mostly followed the Julian calendar which, as with the Gregorian calendar, calculated that it takes 365.25 days for the earth to circle the sun. Only this isn’t entirely accurate and doesn’t account for about eleven minutes each year. By 1582, this had accrued to an eight day difference, and so Pope Gregory introduced the new (and appropriately named) Gregorian calendar, which much of western Europe adopted, but not England — meaning that they suddenly operated on different time zones. You can imagine the confusion when people traveled from England to France and lost eight days in the process!

New Year’s Day was the 25th of March; however, Prescott notes that New Year’s gifts were still given on the 1st of January, as part of Twelfth Night celebrations (3). She cites one New Year’s poem written by Sir Arthur Gorges for King James, which is called a “new Yeares guift” and was presented with the Gregorian New Year — yet also acknowledges that England’s actual “styled new year” is on March 25th (10). A formal adherence to the Gregorian calendar wouldn’t actually occur until 1752!

New Year’s was a time for gift-giving, and Felicity Heal calls it the “par excellence for presents” (60). It was New Year, more than Christmas even, where presents abounded. She cites one particularly wonderful example from Edward Thomas, who inscribed and gifted an edition of Encomium Scalopiae (1615):

It hath beene an ancient custome, not onely with us, but also with forraine Nations, that in the beginning of the new yeare, gifts should passé and bee bestowed by equals unto their equals. (70)

McCabe has written on “the peculiarity of the literary gift”, and we also see these wonderful “literary gifts” at New Year’s. Elizabeth Sandis’s recent essay “Happy New Year in Jacobean Oxford: Metamorphosing Ovid into Student Comedy” (2023) considers a New Year’s performance of Atalanta at St. John College which was ‘dedicated to William Laud, the President of Parsons’ college’. Sandis uncovers the play’s performance contexts, fitting it into a wider culture in which “scholars penned comedies and tragedies in Latin to entertain and impress their peers and their tutors” (155). In particular, she considers their use of “sacred language and gestures of supplication” as a way of securing future positions in the college (157). Most interesting perhaps, is how “Parsons offers his play as a New Year’s gift”, as noted on the title page. This does indeed act as a “gesture of supplication”, but also fits into the wider New Year gift-giving tradition.

Parson speaks to the unique, serious and beautiful nature of literary gifts, writing that “Amongst the many gifts that flutter around at New Year’s, look here, in your hands, the Muse, my pledge, a Muse that has not emerged from her warm egg before”. The “warm egg” is tender and intimate, recalling the possibility of new life and spring, and its existing associations with Easter (see Newall 12). The play, unlike other New Year’s gifts, does not “flutter” frivolously, but is presented as clearly superior. That is not to say, of course, that the play isn’t ephemeral… the image of the egg analogously makes it transitory and fragile. Mazzola has explored the image of the egg in Shakespeare, noting that it is used to show both fragility and protection, as in Hamlet:

Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an eggshell. (4.4.50-52, quoted by Mazzola 371).

The play takes on this fragility. Just think about a play manuscript as an actual object... the ephemerality of the paper... the way it is perpetually susceptible to loss. And we see that even more so in performance - plays are momentary and always finish too soon. There will only ever be one first performance and, perhaps, this is what makes that tender warmth even more beautiful.

Indeed, although the egg is fragile, we must remember that it also holds “The Muse” — and the Muse, as Shakespeare’s 38th sonnet notes, is linked to eternality:

Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate,
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.

Capitalised and repeated, Parsons’s Muse suggests a permanence which is almost oxymoronic after the fragile paper.

McKenzie notes that early modern handwritten material was seen as more trustworthy and permanent than printed material (247), quoting from John Donne who writes “but what is writ we reverence more” (248). Parsons’ “literary gift”, however, possesses a greater value — a memorable and meaningful permanence which surpasses paper’s ephemerality.

I think it’s largely intuitive actually. There is a beauty to handwriting something unique for someone as a gift... and so perhaps something to do this holiday season.




“Julian/Gregorian Calendars”. Manuscripts and Special Collections. University of Nottingham, Julian Calendar was the,not a straight 365 days.

Mazzola, Elizabeth. “Flower, Fruit, Seed, Egg, Copy, Twin, or Snow?”. Philosophy and Literature, John Hopkins UP, vol. 44, no. 2, pp. 366-379, 2020, Project Muse, 10.1353/phl.2020.0027.

McCabe, Richard Anthony. ‘Ungainefull Arte': Poetry, Patronage, and Print in the Early Modern Era. Oxford UP, 2016.

McKenzie, D.F. “Speech—Manuscript—Print”. Making Meaning: ‘Printers of the Mind’ and Other Essays, ed. Peter D. McDonald and Michael F. Suarez, S.J., University of Massachusetts Press, 2002.

Newall, Venetia. “Easter Eggs”. The Journal of American Folklore, American Folklore Society, vol. 80, no. 315, 1967, JSTOR,

Prescott, Anne Lake. “Refusing Translation: The Gregorian Calendar and Early Modern English Writers”. The Yearbook of English Studies, vol. 36, no.1, pp. 1-11, 2006, JSTOR,

Sandis, Elizabeth. “Happy New Year in Jacobean Oxford: Metamorphosing Ovid into Student Comedy”. An Anthology of Neo-Latin Literature in British Universities, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022.

Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 38”. 1609.

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Thank you, Ruby! Very thought-provoking. I had stopped writing letters to loved ones in the last couple of years; perhaps it’s time to resume that habit.


I think acrewed should read as “accrued”?


Thanks so much Ruby for putting this together! That was so interesting to read about! That’s a subject I would have probably never researched on my own.

Ari no Yume

Loved this so much! Really interesting and I could definitely go on reading ahah
Happy holidays!


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