The Humourist on Giving and Receiving Tokens of Esteem on New Year’s Day

Friendship is the Life of Man, the only Cement of Society, the only pledge of true Felicity. —The Humourist


1 January 1754


— — — Laeti
Dona ferunt, — —

The most volatile enjoy Hours of Reflection, and indeed Life must appear very burdensome to that Man whose Genius is unable to chequer the grave with the ludicrous, the solemn with the Farce:  A well-tempered Mixture is ever the best, the one is a Relaxation for the other, and greatly contributes to render our Company acceptable in all social Communications.

The Humourist was yesterday serious: the Incident was fortunate, for whilst he was employed in passing his yearly accounts, and comparing a few Transactions of the former, with the past Year, he stumbled upon a Sentiment which carries with it an excellent Moral, and opportunely serves as an Introduction to that Revolution of Time, generally term’d a Year.

This is the Season, wherein that laudable Custom of presenting Tokens of Friendship, has Time out of Mind prevailed: It is a Custom so noble as it is ancient, and is undoubtedly grounded on the most perfect Reason, and established by the best Examples.

A very limited and confined Knowledge of the Ancients, will suffice to illustrate this Truth.  If we look back upon the Jews, we shall find, that the Month of Nisan, the first of their Year, was dedicated to the Celebration of Feasts, particularly that of the Passover, on which Occasion they gave the most general Invitations to their Neighbors to the eating [one or two illegible words].

The Greeks began their Olympiads by Sacrificing to Jupiter and the most superstitious Nations have not been wanting in Ceremonies of a like Nature.

A New-Year’s Gift, is a renewing, or rather confirming, that Friendship which a generous Mind will always be ambitious to acquire.

There is only one Thing wherein I should take Pleasure in seeing Mankind bear a Resemblance to the Turks, and that is, by rejoicing with due Reverence at every new Moon, whose Crescent they never fail to display with the most grateful Acts of Kindness to each other.

In January and February, the Romans made Presents to their Friends, and Romulus expressly commanded, that Vervine should be offered with other Marks of mutual Respect, as the wisest Method of insuring to themselves a successful and happy Conclusion to the Year.

Tacitus tells us. that Tiberius fixed the First of January as the proper Day, not only for the giving, but likewise for receiving, these Tokens of Esteem.

We are apt to measure Love by the most extravagant Return of Favours, but if we consider, that the Dispensations of Providence are too unequally divided, to allow each Man the same Power of Distribution, we shall regard more justly those Marks of Gratitude, that, notwithstanding they want the Stamp of Gratitude, do nevertheless bear upon them the Figure of a generous Mind; it is the Manner, not the Value, that distinguishes the Greatness of the Favour, it is the sweet and grateful Communication of our Gratitude, not the too liberal Profusion, that renders the Gift an acceptable Boon.

Customs of this nature can never meet with suitable Encouragement; all our Endeavors to promote them, will fall greatly short of the Veneration in which they ought to be upheld.

Friendship is the Life of Man, the only Cement of Society, the only pledge of true Felicity.

These annual Gifts strengthen and confirm our Alliances, and preserve that Conformity of  [one illegible word ending in tent] which is the Essence of mutual Esteem.

A well grounded Friendship promotes the [one illegible word] Virtues, and entirely eradicates from the human Heart, any insincere Passions or turbulent Suspicions.

With a Friend (not a Friend in common Acceptation) a Desart loses its Train of Horror, and only seems a blest Retirement.

It is evident, that the Ancients looked upon those Customs as promotive of the social Duties, and as so many Obligations of the Performance of them.  I am sorry to say, that modern Elegance is endeavouring to suppress these noble Emanations, but I am far more grieved to own, that such Virtues are incompatible with modern Graces.

It is with Sincerity I offer my Thoughts on this Subject, tho’ far more unnecessary in this Place (than in my others) where so noble a Generosity, joined with an hospitable Dignity, prevails.

The greatest Lessons of Morality may be gathered from imbibing such worthy Sentiments; they communicate Love to every Individual, and keep up an Harmony, without which the Order of Nature is inverted.

These Gifts create a most happy Emulation amongst the juvenile part of Mankind, and are so many Records of Friendship for the Gathers and Grandfathers to transmit to Posterity.

If these Hints meet with Approbation, I need not assure my Readers, that the Reward is more than adequate to my Trouble:  And I dare affirm, that if any Exceptions are taken to the Method I pursue in treating upon this or any other Subject, they will be generously considered as Errors arising from a Defect of Judgment, not for a total Ignorance of what an honest Soul ought to dictate.


1 Starting with 1754, The Humourist numbers each essay.

2 The quote is from Vergil’s Aeneid (Book V:100-101), “Aeneas Declares the Games”: “And his companions as well, brought gifts gladly, of which / each had a store, piling high the altars, sacrificing bullocks: / others set out rows of cauldrons, and scattered among the grass, / placed live coals under the spits, and roasted the meat.”

7 thoughts on “The Humourist on Giving and Receiving Tokens of Esteem on New Year’s Day

  1. Good Stuff! In 1754 George Washington was just 22 years old. In July of that year he was defeated and captured by the French at Fort Necessity. The Humorist talks of Friendship. All these years later we still seek good friends. 259 years from now I trust we will be closer to his dreams.


  2. In 1754 George Washington was 22 years old. The Humorist was talking of the value of good friends. 259 years from now I trust we will be closer to his dream.

    I admire your research of so long ago. Perhaps George Washing Harris of “Sut” fame was also an admirer of the Humorist.


    • Thanks for anchoring us to such a wonderful 1754 fact! Friendship will prevail, always and in all ways. In terms of George Washington Harris being an admirer of The Humourist, I don’t think so. Remember: until now, these essays were never printed beyond their original publication in the Gazette, and Harris was not born until 1814.


  3. Only a few generations ago any well-educated person was required to learn Latin and Greek, so one would THINK that there would be such an abundance of historical translations on the Internet that one would not be aggravated by blanks where words should be. However, I Googled “dona ferunt” for the fun of it and found that its original meaning had to do with offering up sacrifice but that it later came to mean serving up dainties or dessert, which fits in with The Humourist’s essay, in that he mentions sacrifice and the giving of gifts. I sense beneath his erudite words the simpler virtues: Everything in moderation, including moderation; It is better to give than to receive; It’s the thought that counts, etc.

    I was going over MY accounts at the turning of the year and stumbled upon a small check from an insurance company that I had overlooked. The amount is too small to sacrifice to the electric company; I shall buy an extravagant dessert and share it with a friend!


    • Yes, you are 100% correct. Historically, Latin and Greek were part of the core curriculum in this country’s schools and colleges. You will appreciate this quote from “Classical Education of the Founding Fathers” (Memorial Press): “Students were also expected in these early years, according to the Harvard College Laws, to be able to translate the Old and New Testaments from the original Greek and Hebrew into Latin. Not only that, but listen to another Harvard requirement of the time: ‘The scholars shall never use their mother tongue, except that in public exercises of oratory or such like they be called to make them in English.’ In other words, with limited exceptions, students were prohibited from using English in class or in class assignments.”

      You will also appreciate the fact that Latin seems to be making a comeback in America’s schools. See the Penn State article, “Probing Question: Is Latin Valuable for Today’s Students?”

      The Humourist would be delighted to know that you went over YOUR accounts, found a small pittance, and used it to bring extravagant joy to you and a friend!


      • My granddaughter attends Wakefield Country Day School and they are required to take Latin. She is only eight and is already smarter than I!

        Stephen Hudak | VP University | 130 Chestnut Oak Road, Front Royal, Virginia 22630 | 540.622.7499 |
        “The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action.” Herbert Spencer


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