The Irish Tradition of Handsel Monday

Handsel Monday Money?
© Bernd Biege 2014

Handsel Monday (occasionally misspelled as "Hansel Monday") is an adopted Christmas tradition in Ireland. The day mainly used to be celebrated in Scotland and northern England, but it made it across the Irish sea with immigrants and settlers. Today in Ireland, Handsel Monday is a smaller tradition connected to a specific ethnicity and is slowly dying out. It sometimes a part of the Twelve Days of Christmas, but its date moves around the map. If you want to keep the tradition alive, here is how to celebrate this unique holiday.

When Is Handsel Monday?

Handsel Monday falls on the first Monday of the year, so the actual date in any given year can be anywhere between January 1st and January 7th. In 2014 January 6th, also known as "Little Christmas" or "Women's Christmas", was Handsel Monday. In, 2016 it was January 4th, in 2017 it was fairly early (January 2nd), with a Handsel Monday on January 1st or New Year's Day in 2018, falling on January 7th in 2019. In 2020, Handsel Monday is January 6th, the same day as the Epiphany.

Strangely enough, there are (at least in some areas of Scotland, where the tradition is stronger) also celebrations of "Auld Hansel Monday", the first Monday after January 12. Celebrating feast days at this later date moves them according to the old Julian Calendar to dates in the new Gregorian Calendar - similar to the celebration of the Battle of the Boyne or the October Revolution in Russia.

What Is Handsel?

"Handsel" is believed to have its roots in the language of the Saxons (placing at least the name firmly in an English context), with a meaning of "delivering something into the hand". A handsel, in this case, is a kind of dues to be paid. Rather than a large tax, the meaning of the word is nearer to a small gift, either money or goods, more as a token to ensure good luck from the beginning of the year. In other words, a handsel would be a gift to mark (and bless) a beginning. By handing over this gift, the recipient feels lucky but the giver also avoids a spell of bad luck themselves.

The Tradition

In the 19th century, Handsel Monday was the day it was already customary (reflecting an older folk tradition) to give both children and servants (both "dependants" of the family, in a way) a present. There were other superstitions about what would be an appropriate kind of gift to bring good luck while avoiding bad luck. For example, the gift should never be a sharp object. This was not for modern safety consciousness, but because something sharp might "cut the ties". This kind of rule for gift-giving is seen in some other cultures as well, including at the start of Chinese New Year. Another important rule attached to gifts on Handsel Monday concerned purses. If you gave a gift of a purse or a wallet, it should never be totally empty, in order to ensure that the person using it in the future would never find it empty themselves.

As Handsel Monday evolved, it became the day that tips were given to all of the servants of the house. It was not only the live-in servants who received money this day, but also the day to tip all service providers who came to the house on a regular basis - newspaper boys, the garbage collectors, the postman, delivery boys from the local butchers, bakers and possibly candlestick makers as well. Similar traditions are found in many places around the world, through like in Germany, for instance, much of this gift-giving would be either immediately before Christmas or around New Year's Day rather than on this particular first Monday of the year.

In the 21st century, Handsel Monday is all but forgotten in Ireland, though in some families children are still handed small gifts on this day. Many modern Irish folks will be hard-pressed to even have heard about Handsel Monday at all and may roundly refute it, saying it's "not an Irish tradition". In a way, they would be correct, as mentioned above that this tradition is an imported one.

An interesting description of Handsel Monday proceedings in Limerick can be found in "The Park Danes" by Patsy Harrold:

"Hansel Monday" was also celebrated on the first Monday of the New Year. On that morning a young boy in each house would be wished a happy New Year and given a half crown hansel by his mother. The woman would then usher her son out through the back door of the house. After closing this door, the mother would open the front one and welcome the boy back into the kitchen. The son's wealth was short-lived, however, as the woman would quickly retrieve the hansel. Half-crowns were never too plentiful in Park.

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