THE ARCHIVES OF FIGARO - The tradition of new year's presents is lost a bit, this custom is however very old. In Rome, our Latin ancestors offered verbena ... A look back at the history of New Year's gifts told in Le Figaro in 1906.
Sempiternelle question at the end of the year: should we and who to give? These little touches, in the form of pieces today are certainly not mandatory, but often the opportunity to thank for small services or simply to please: "the idea is kind to inaugurate the year with a gesture of courtesy, by an exchange of good practices "note Le Figaro. This custom, which goes back far into the past, has been subject to "pressure" or even prohibition. The Church and then the Revolution tried to ban them, but in vain. After retracing the history of this practice, the journalist Figaro wonders if "the custom is likely to last in the future for a very long time. It is difficult to decide it categorically; however, I think so ... "
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Article published in Le Figaro of December 29, 1906.
New Year gifts
The nice custom of New Year comes to us, please, Romans. It is a venerable tradition and on the occasion of which you will be able, next Tuesday, to celebrate or curse the Latin ancestors, to celebrate them or to curse them according to whether your age is destined to receive you or to give the gracious gifts of the new year. In one way or the other, it is worthwhile, moreover, to leave quiet the memory of the very old characters who, by the exchange of their amenities, did not know that they were engaging the so distant descendants that we are! ...
Anyway, the word ofNew Year gifts himself draws from Latin his etymology. It is said that there was, at the gates of Rome, a sacred grove of the goddess Strenia where they were going to gather verbena. Besides, this goddess Strenia, we hardly know her; and perhaps we would not know it at all if the necessities of etymology had not united its destiny to that of the wordNew Year gifts. What then? The gods should survive their worship and even their easy intelligence. The gods should survive as long as possible. And blessed be this etymology, in favor of which lasts beyond all likelihood the mysterious name of the hypothetical goddess Strenia! ...
If even Strenia did not exist-I mean: only existed in the thought of the Roman ancestors-let us honor, however, that pious etymology that invented a divine person. It requires gods: who creates it deserves the gratitude of humanity. And among the divine people, Strenia is undoubtedly one of the least demanding. If she is the goddess of New Year's giving, she is also the one of New Year's gifts. And this compensates for that!
So, on the first day of the year, the Romans went to the sacred grove of Strenia to pick the verbena as we go to the woods of Bagneux to pick the strawberry - but more seriously. This verbena, which they so plucked, they did not destine to futile beloved, no, but to the magistrates of the city. It is to the magistrates that one wished, with verbena, the good year. They were carrying twigs. This is narrated by Symmachus and must be true; or else in whom would we trust, if such a Symmachus were able to deceive us? ...
Besides, the prudence of the Romans is justly celebrated; and it is the work of prudent people to appease the magistrates with gifts. In various countries, this practice is reprobated by the laws. Nothing to do. But, at least, when the laws allow it, it is only natural that people think of reconciling the top of the social hierarchy. This is what the Romans did. One could not expect less from their clear vision of daily realities.
And do not forget to praise these quasi-disinterested magistrates. A certain modesty of the bribe shows an almost perfect integrity; and, if the magistrates, in all countries and even in our country, had always been satisfied with strands of verbena, many scandals would have been spared us, the dignity of the magistracy would only improve on them.
A bit of verbena is a pretty thing, graceful and very fragrant. But, above all, it is a symbol; the magistrates of Rome heard it so, and not one of them cried out like Calchas in a Beautiful Helen which treats antiquity slightly "Too many flowers, too many flowers!"
However, and whatever it costs us, whatever the cost of the renown of our Latin origins, let's say the whole truth. It is only in the early days of Rome that verbena is enough for new year presents. Yes, under the reign of Tatius Sabinus, who, it is said, saw the beginning of this custom, so it was. Then, it seemed that one could advantageously vary the gift a little. Verbena fell into disuse. It was replaced by honey, dates and figs.
It's already more substantial! ... And it's still symbolic. Good authors are there to affirm that to offer, in fact of new year, to magistrates figs, dates or honey is wish them a great sweetness of life. A little bland perhaps, dates and figs escape in any case the reproach of bitterness or bitterness. As for honey, its praise, in this respect, is well established. Poets take it as a synonym for sweetness, and they oppose it to the absinthe which is, for them, the synonym of bitterness. Honor to the magistrates of Rome who let themselves be gorged with jars of honey at each renewal of the year without ever demanding an amphora of the green and perfidious liquor!
Then, with the progress, as they say, with the progress of manners and elegance it came to be remembered that figs, dates, and even honey do not make happiness; and they began to give to the magistrates as gifts medals, coins, money, beautiful silver stumbling, with which one can buy honey, dates, figs, even twigs of verbena, or something else each according to his tastes.
All this was under kings or the republic. The custom lasted under the empire. And then, as the Emperor gathered in his hand all the magistracy, he received all the presents. The people came, in a compact crowd, to wish him a happy new year, and to offer him the little presents which courtesy recommends mainly money.
Tiberius had not a pleasant character. He hated this ceremony which brought him into direct contact with his people. Every year, a little before the end of the last month, he was absent, under one pretext or another, or without any pretext at all. He was absent, making a short trip, and returning only after the passing of New Year's Eve. And even one must believe that this obligation to travel every year on a fixed date displeased him, for he diminished the inconvenience as best he could. He did not dare to suppress the presents they were of a current and popular use; but he limited them to the first day of the year and forbade them for the next day. In this way, it was enough for him to be out of Rome for twenty-four hours to avoid the chore.
One would, at first sight, be tempted to praise a potentate so disinterested that he refuses the presents of his people. But, to tell the truth, we must never hasten to praise Tiberius; the lad had many other means of obtaining the money he desired. For example, he put to death the opulent characters whose heritage seemed to him desirable. He was not a skeptic.
Caligula, who came after, was not one either. He regretted the obsolescence in which his predecessor had dropped a profitable tradition and, in short, he asked for new gifts. He had some. He did not like to displease him.
In our country, the custom of New Year may even be considered as anterior to the Roman conquest. The Celts had something analogous to the verbena of the goddess Strenia: it was the mistletoe. None of my readers are unaware of the predilection that the Druids had for this parasitic plant. They cut it and collected it as we know ...
It remains from this very ancient use at least one phrase that is still heard today in certain provinces such as Guyenne, Picardy or Brittany. "The mistletoe year nine!" Is a cry that grow like their ancestors immemorial thousand young people forgetful of the meaning of these words and who, without knowing it, claim for the novelty of the year the picking of the mistletoe.
Christianity pretended in its beginnings, to react against the custom of the presents. Defense was made, under pain of incurring the ecclesiastical chastisements, to celebrate by dances, masquerades and presents, a date inherited from the pagans. This is conceivable. Christianity wanted to implant its feasts; he had to do away with the pagan holidays. He suppressed almost all, but not the New Year!
These lasted, in spite of everything. The year began then at Easter, so it was until the middle of the sixteenth century; well! at Easter, every year, little gifts were made, and wishes for the gifts still more beautiful and precious than the benevolent Destiny alone.
Under the reign of Louis XIV, the luxury of the New Year was excellent and sometimes ingenious to the possible.
In 1665, Madame de Thianges had the duke of Maine manufacture this: a room, all gilded, as big as a table. There was a wax doll sitting on an armchair with the perfect resemblance of the Duke of Maine. With this doll, others figured the best of the world M. de La Rochefoucauld, M. de Marcillac, Bossuet and, both reading verses, Madame de Thianges and Madame de Lafayette, then, having at his side Racine and La Fontaine, Boileau who, with a well-handled fork, dismissed bad poets.
This is really a nice gift to give to a Duke of Maine. Madame de Thianges was witty.
A few years later, in 1679, there was unanimous agreement at court to consider it very advantageous to please Madame de Montespan. The favorite was, at the New Year, well treated. It was to whom would find more beautiful presents to offer him. Monsieur gave him a cut gold cup on which ran a garland of diamonds and emeralds, plus two goblets of gold, the lids of which were adorned similarly. The whole was worth not less than ten thousand crowns. The ladies of the court made an onslaught of invention and generosity; the queen herself offered her little present, if not very heartily, at least without visible grimace. And the dear Madame de Montespan received all this willingly and, it is necessary to believe, a little as a due thing, for she did not return a single gift, if not, to the princess of Harcourt, a haire, a discipline and Hours, yes, enriched with diamonds. Madame de Maintenon herself had gone there with her presents: a book; - a gift all the same, and to Montespan! ... What to do? ...
It would be easy to multiply these examples. It would be easy to find in all countries. Because the tradition of New Year's presents is general and extremely.
It has many disadvantages; but she is gracious, in short. There are also boring ones that do not have the same approval. The idea is amiable, to inaugurate the year by a gesture of courtesy, by an exchange of good practices.
And then, the grumpy people can always consider giving Christmas presents on the first of January as we have a "day" to receive: it is to limit the disaster and to be, the rest of the time, quiet. And again it is permissible to apply to the presents what has been said about visits or almost: they are pleasure,
If not when they arrive, at least when they leave. Likewise, New Year's gifts are a pleasure for someone in general. All the disadvantages of this world do not have their good side!
This custom, which goes back so far in the past, is it likely to last in the very long future? It is difficult to decide it categorically; however, I believe so ... No doubt socialist theorists prohibit this reactionary use and, for the sovereign people, very humiliating. New presents, like tips, have against them philosophers of the extreme left. They protest in the name of what they call human dignity in their language. Their propaganda, which this time would have the voluntary support of many employers, scarcely succeeds; it has not, so far, yielded the smallest result, and these days, good spirits, who are also economical, will regret it with a judicious bitterness.
But no, the Socialists, here as elsewhere, will not succeed.
Christianity, as we have seen, pretended to suppress the New Year; and it was in vain. Much later, in 1793, the revolutionaries wanted to take up this idea. The gifts were officially removed. They were only officially. This is little. They have a hard life.
Christianity will have suffered many tribulations, and these principles of the French Revolution that we call the great principles will have caused many disappointments, and ideologues humanitarian or others will have said many nonsense, before the gifts have lost the least of their prestige - alas!
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