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Thursday 18 September 2014

New year predictions of times past

Published 30/12/2012 | 03:30

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Millions of people will be making resolutions to ring in 2013

Just as the clock strikes midnight to mark the start of another year, so too millions of people will use the moment as a blank canvas and look forward with optimism to a better 12 months.

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But the custom of making predictions for the new year has not always been backed by religious leaders, according to research into the festive practices of times gone by.

Research for Dr Catherine Rider's book Magic And Religion In Medieval England showed how the Christian clergy supported agricultural superstitions but condemned what they perceived as magic rituals.

The day of the week on which Christmas or New Year fell was used as an indicator to tell how the year would turn out.

According to one set of predictions, if Christmas Day fell on a Sunday then Lent would be windy, summer would be dry, vines would flourish and honey would be abundant. But if Christmas Day fell on a Monday, the summer would be windy and the vines would wither.

The University of Exeter historian found that the medieval clergy did not generally disapprove of this kind of fortune telling. They accepted that it really was possible to predict the weather and the harvest in advance. New year predictions like these were a kind of science, not magic, they said.

Dr Rider said: "We can see how acceptable the Christmas Day predictions were by looking at the manuscripts of the day. Even in documents written to educate the clergy these superstitions appear alongside notes on how to hear confessions, the seven deadly sins and short moral stories.

"However, medieval priests were not so willing to accept all new year traditions. Magic offered many other possibilities for predicting the future, but the clergy believed this was against God. Although they accepted those rooted in agriculture, others were considered blasphemous."

Research showed that the 13th century theologian Richard of Wetheringsett complained about people who exchanged gifts with their neighbours. He objected because these gifts were not just tokens of friendship but were believed to bring good fortune to both the giver and the receiver over the coming year.

People also put beans near the fire in order to predict how their plans for the year would turn out, or threw shoes over the roof beams of their house to predict whether anyone in the house would die in the coming year, research showed.

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