Handsel Monday is the first Monday in the New Year. IT’s an old Scottish festival. Before the nineteenth century the main midwinter celebration — Christmas was considered by Calvinists to be heathen and Hogmanay hadn’t come into fashion.
In The Eskdale Herd-boy (“a Scottish tale for the instruction and amusement of young persons”) by Martha Blackford, published in 1819, appears: “‘Sir,’ said John, as he walked along, ‘do you think Mr Laurie will give me a holiday on Handsel Monday?’ (the first Monday in the year, and the only holiday the Scottish peasantry ever allow themselves, except, perhaps, in the case of a wedding).”
It was in particular a day for giving presents and that’s where the name comes from. Handsel (or hansel, or even handsell) is a Middle English word for luck or a good omen that comes from Old Norse. It became the name for a gift given on any special occasion, such as taking on a new job or beginning some enterprise, or for earnest money — a down payment or a first instalment.
One particular situation in which the term was used, which many subscribers have mentioned, was that of putting a coin of small value as a good-luck charm in a handbag or purse given as a present. The superstition or tradition is widespread, but only in Scotland was it commonly called a handsel.