On 31st December at midnight, many will welcome in the New Year with plenty of ‘mirthe’, ‘good cheere’, and perhaps even a good deal of alcohol. But how many of you will give your friends and family a New Year’s gift? In early modern England, New Year’s celebrations were part of the wider Christmas festivities, and gifts tended to be exchanged not on Christmas day, but on New Year’s. This seventeenth century wine bottle, inscribed ‘SACK/1646’, may have been given as a New Year’s gift – its date signalled the new year, its contents the ‘mirth’ with which it would be welcomed.
The bottle is made from tin-glazed earthenware, or ‘English delft’ as it has come to be known. It has been coated in white glaze, and the inscription painted on in cobalt blue. It is a simple and far from unique object. Museums all over the world have bottles in this style in their collections, inscribed with the year and ‘sack’, ‘claret’, or ‘whit’, to denote different types of wine. Indeed, more than one hundred and sixty such bottles are known, and it is evident that they were made in fairly high quantities. Yet they date from a relatively narrow period of time, from the early seventeenth to the early eighteenth century, with the majority of dated examples falling between 1636 and 1668.
The survival of such a large number of these bottles has intrigued curators and collectors for years, with various ideas put forward to explain their existence. Some have suggested that they were used by vintners to hold samples of wine for prospective customers, others that they were used at table or for storage. Many have come to the conclusion that the bottles were given as New Year’s gifts among the less wealthy. The curator Michael Archer concluded as such, arguing that the inscription of the year, alongside their survival in relatively high numbers, would suggest they were given as ‘more modest’ offerings at New Year. Yet we should be cautious of labelling them ‘modest’. The bottles vary considerably in size, having been made not by mould but by hand – some are as small as 10.8cm high, others are a not so modest 24.5cm in height. With that said, there is evidence that this bottle could have been given as a New Year’s gift – but what is the history of the New Year’s gift, and in what context might this bottle have been given?
The origins of the New Year’s gift can be traced as far back as the Ancient Roman festival known as the kalends, This was a major ritual celebration that hailed in the new year. It included the presentation of gifts to the emperor, as well as the exchange of simple presents between family and friends. After the conversion to Christianity, the early Church sought to eradicate the ‘pagan’ kalends, yet the sheer resilience of the festival eventually led to its re-appropriation by the Church. From then on, 1st January became part of the Twelve Days celebrations that included Christmas.  Yet many of the customs associated with the kalends, particularly the exchange of gifts, persisted into the Middle Ages and beyond. These gifts were not given merely as a sign of good will, but had the symbolic function of being good omens for the incoming year. They were also an important symbol of hierarchy, loyalty, and ambition, bestowing benefits on both the giver and the receiver.
At an elite level, the elaborate court ceremonies that took place on New Year’s day in Renaissance and early modern Europe, in which rulers ritually received and gave gifts, are well documented and have received much attention by scholars. What did courtiers and royals give as gifts? We can find out a lot from the gift rolls that survive – meticulously detailed documents that record all the gifts given and received by a king or queen. A variety of gifts are recorded, from books and embroidery to expensive jewels and plate. There are even references to children given as gifts to Elizabeth I. This annual court ceremony was a very public one, and the donor would want to take careful note of the king or queen’s reaction to their gift, all the time concerned with what they could expect in return.
However, New Year’s rituals took place at all levels of society. Indeed, gift-exchange undoubtedly occurred at a more popular level as well. Although far removed from the gift-giving ceremonies at court, begging rituals still involved a material token as an omen of good will for the new year. The act of going door-to-door by the poor or children to solicit charity is recorded in Scotland, Wales, and northern England on New Year’s Day. This can be compared to the so-called ‘Feast of Fools’ that took place in France on 1st January, in which crowds of poor people who went door-to-door to beg for small presents in exchange for good wishes for the new year.
In towns and villages throughout England, 1st January was a day of general merriment that included both gift-exchange and widespread inebriation. This is where our wine bottle comes back in. The importance of drinking alcohol in the festivities at Christmas and New Year’s is evident in many broadside ballads from the seventeenth century. In ‘A pleasant Countrey new Ditty: Merrily showing how To drive the cold Winter away’, printed around 1625, the importance of drinking during the festive period is emphasized. Wassail, liquor, ale, ‘a cup and a Song’, are all encouraged, ‘With mirth and good cheere,/To end the old yeere,/and drive the cold winter away.’
Moreover, there is evidence that wine was specifically chosen to be given as a gift at New Year’s. In ‘Christmas, His Masque’, written in 1616, Ben Jonson included in his description of the personified ‘New Yeare’s Gift’, ‘a bottle of wine on either arme’. Similarly, on 2nd January 1659/60, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary how,
‘In the morning before I went forth old East brought me a dozen of bottles of sack, and I have him a shilling for his pains. Then I went to Mr. Sheply who was drawing of sack in the wine cellar to send to other places as a gift from my Lord, and told me that my Lord had given him order to give me the dozen of bottles.’
New Year’s and its ritual celebrations undoubtedly had their own materiality. From expensive jewels to wassail pots, the year was welcomed in with a range of material culture. Could this earthenware wine bottle belong to this group of objects? Although they have certainly been popular among collectors, bottles of this type still remain somewhat of a mystery. What we do know at least is that in early modern England wine and ‘good cheere’ would, as now, have been essential to bringing in the new year.
 Michael Archer, Delftware: The Tin-glazed Earthenware of the British Isles 1600-1800 (London: V&A Publications, 1984), pp. 307-308.
 Jane Lawson, The Elizabethan New Year’s Gift Exchanges 1559-1603 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 3.
 Brigitte Buettner, ‘Past Presents: New Year’s Gifts at the Valois Courts, ca. 1400’, The Art Bulletin 83 (2001), 598-625.
 Patricia Fumerton, ‘Exchanging Gifts: The Elizabethan Currency of Children and Poetry’ ELH 53 (1986), 241-278.
Lisa M. Klein, ‘Your Humble Housemaid: Elizabethan Gifts of Needlework’, Renaissance Quarterly 50 (1997), 459-493.
 Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 65-67.
 ‘A pleasant Countrey new Ditty: / Merrily shewing how / To driue the cold Winter away.’ (Printed in London by H.G., c.1625).
 Ben Jonson, The Complete Masques (London: Yale University Press, 1969), p. 235.
 Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys 1660, ed. Henry B. Wheatley (London: Echo Library, 2006), p. 41.
Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A. If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us: email@example.com
Sophie Cope –
Sophie did her BA in History at the University of Cambridge where she specialized in early modern material culture. She is particularly interested in how the passing of time is expressed in materials. Her MA dissertation at the V&A/RCA uses dated objects to explore ideas of time, memory, and materiality in early modern England.
© Sophie Cope 2013. All Rights Reserved.