Ringing Out the Old Year

By Robert Chambers

This is an excerpt from Chambers’ work The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character, Volume 2. (1864). This book and its excerpt are in the public domain. We have added some notes, links, and images. (*)

The close of the year brings along with it a mingled feeling of gladness and melancholy—of gladness in the anticipation of brighter days to come with the advent of the New Year, and of melancholy in reflections on the fleeting nature of time, and the gradual approach to the inevitable goal in the race of life. That so interesting an occasion should be distinguished by some observance or ceremony appears but natural, and we accordingly find various customs prevail, some sportive, others serious, and others in which both the mirthful and pensive moods are intermingled.

One of the best known and most general of these customs is, that of sitting up till twelve o’clock on the night of the 31st December, and, then, when the eventful hour has struck, proceeding to the house-door, and unbarring it with great formality to ‘let out the Old, and let in the New Year.’ The evening in question is a favourite occasion for social gatherings in Scotland and the north of England, the assembled friends thus welcoming together the birth of another of Father Time’s ever-increasing, though short-lived progeny. In Philadelphia, in North America, we are informed that the Old Year is there ‘fired out,’ and the New Year ‘fired in,‘ by a discharge of every description of firearm—musket, fowling-piece, and pistol. In the island of Guernsey, it used to be the practice of children to dress up a figure in the shape of a man, and after parading it through the parish, to bury it on the sea-shore, or in some retired spot. This ceremony was styled ‘enterrer le vieux bout de I’an.’ (1)

An 1897 illustration of Father Time and Baby New Year. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

A custom prevails, more especially among English dissenters, of having a midnight service in the various places of worship on the last night of the year, the occasion being deemed peculiarly adapted both for pious meditations and thankfulness, and also for the reception and retention of religious impressions. And to the community at large, the passing away of the Old Year and the arrival of his successor is heralded by the peals of bells, (2) which, after twelve o’clock has struck, burst forth from every steeple, warning us that another year has commenced. At such a moment, painful reflections will obtrude themselves, of time misspent and opportunities neglected, of the fleeting nature of human existence and enjoyment, and that ere many more years have elapsed, our joys and sorrows, our hopes and our forebodings, will all, along with ourselves, have become things of the past. Such is the dark side of the question, but it has also its sunny side and its silver lining :

‘For Hope shall brighten days to come 
And Memory gild the past.’ (3)

And on such an occasion as we are contemplating, it is both more noble and more profitable to take a cheerful and reassuring view of our condition, and that of humanity in general—laying aside futile reflections on past imprudence and mismanagement, and resolving for the future to do our utmost in fulfilling our duty to God and our fellow-men.

In Memoriam (Ring Out, Wild Bells) by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (4)

Ring out wild bells to the wild sky, 
The flying cloud, the frosty light: 
The Year is dying in the night; 
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new, 
Ring, happy bells, across the snow: 
The Year is going, let him go; 
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor, 
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly-dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life, 
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes, 
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right, 
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old, 
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land, 
Ring in the Christ that is to be.’


*. This excerpt has been adapted from the very excellent Hillman’s Hyperlinked and Searchable Book of Days (website)

  1. The French in translation: “Bury the Old Year.”
  2. “It is an accepted English custom to ring English Full circle bells to ring out the old year and ring in the new year over midnight on New Year’s Eve. Sometimes the bells are rung half-muffled for the death of the old year, then the muffles are removed to ring without muffling to mark the birth of the new year.” (Wikipedia)
  3. By Thomas Moore, Irish poet (1779-1852).
  4. Poem published in 1850. Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). This poem has been set to music several times, including by Charles Gounod, Percy Fletcher, and Karl Jenkins. See also: “Tennyson and The Golden Treasury” by Michael J. Sullivan, Oxford University Press (here).

See also: “How Great Britain Has Celebrated New Year’s Eve Over Time” (The Culture Trip) and “Why is New Year’s Eve So Depressing?” (Vice, 2017)

Happy New Year.

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