New Year in Guernsey

Once upon a time Guernsey's biggest party day.

'Bon jour, Monsieur! Bon jour, Madame!
Je n’vous ai pas vu acouâre chut an.
Et je vous souhaite une bouane année,
Et mes irvières, s’ï’vous plliet.'

This is the little song that Guernsey children sang when 'first-footing,' asking for their irvières, in French étrennes, their New Year's Day gifts.


From Guernsey Folk Lore, by Edgar MacCulloch:

The first day of the year is with all classes in Guernsey the one most strictly observed as a holiday, and, in all but the religious observance, is more thought of than even Christmas Day. Presents are given to friends, servants, and children; the heads of families gather around them those who have left the paternal roof; more distant relatives exchange visits; young people call at the houses of their aged kinsfolk to wish them many happy returns of the season and, in many cases, to receive the gifts that are awaiting them; and receptions—now become almost official in their character—are held by the Lieutenant-Governor—the Bailiff, and the Dean. Cake and wine are offered to visitors, and the day ends with a feast in proportion with their means and rank in society. All the morning the roads and streets are crowded with groups of persons hurrying from house to house, hands are warmly shaken, kind words are spoken, many a little coolness or misunderstanding is forgotten, and even breaches of long standing are healed, when neighbours join in eating the many cakes for which Guernsey is famous, and which are considered suitable for the occasion. The favourite undoubtedly is 'gâche à corinthes,' anglice 'currant cake,' also a kind of soft bread-cake, known by the name of 'galette;' and on Christmas Day a sort of milk-cake, called 'gâche détrempée' is baked early in the morning, so as to appear hot at the breakfast table; and so completely is this repast looked upon in the light of a family feast, that parents living in the country send presents of these cakes to their children who have taken service in town. A younger brother will leave the paternal roof long before daybreak to carry to his sister, at ther master’s house, the cake which the affectionate mother has risen in the middle of the night to bake for her absent child.

On the last night of the year it was customary (and the practice has not altogether fallen into desuetude) for boys to dress up a grotesque figure, which they called 'Le vieux bout de l’an,' and after parading it through the streets by torch-light with the mock ceremonial of a funeral procession, to end by burying it on the beach, or in some other retired spot, or to make a bonfire and burn it.

How often has it been my melancholy duty to attend, sometimes as chief mourner (or mummer), the funeral of old Bout de l’An! A log of wood, wrapt up in sable cloth, was his usual representative, when, with great and even classical solemnity, just as the clock struck twelve, the juvenile procession set itself in motion, every member thereof carrying a lantern scooped out of a turnip, or made of oiled paper. I well remember that awful Saturday night when one of my junior school-fellows was returning from Maître Laurent's barber's shop in Fountain-street, with his grandfather's cauliflower wig, and how it was snatched out of his hand, much to my consternation, by the leader of the Bout de l'An's funeral.'.. the annual log ... underwent the Oagan ceremony of incineration at the Gallet-Heaume (Mr Métivier in the Star, March 14th, 1831).' [This is quoted by H E Marquand in The Star of 5th March 1907, without attribution.]


For more about this important book, see Guernsey Folk LoreSee also Machon, L., 'When was the Boud'lo burnt?' Quarterly Rev. of the Guernsey Soc., XLVI (3), Autumn 1990, pp. 77 ff.