Kilt Up for the Most Amazing New Year’s Party in the World!
Hogmanay is the Scots word for the last day of the year and is the name of the Scottish New Year’s celebration. And it is one heck of a party. The Edinburgh Hogmanay celebrations of 1996-97 were recognized by the Guinness Book of Records at the world’s largest New Year’s party with about 400,000 people in attendance! In fact, New Year’s Eve is usually only the start of Hogmanay festivities which can last for several days.
What is Hogmanay?
Hogmanay is one part Celtic fire festival and one part Norse winter solstice festival. It has been celebrated in one form or another since ancient times. The Vikings, who ruled portions of Scotland and England during the 9th through 10th centuries, imported their twelve-night-long winter holiday of Yule (the origins of the Twelve Days of Christmas, sometimes called the “Daft Days” in Scotland). This holiday was also celebrated by the Anglo-Saxons to the south. Hogmanay is the culmination of the twelve nights and hence the big blow-out party. It became an even bigger deal after the establishment of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland which actually discouraged the celebration of Christmas Day (considered “too Papist”). In fact, Christmas Day was just a regular work day in Scotland until the 1950s. Hogmanay incorporates a number of customs and traditions with many local variations.
REDDING THE HOUSE
If you’re going to have a proper Hogmanay, you really need to tidy up for company first — and you can expect a LOT of company. “Redding the house” is similar to annual spring cleaning in some communities, or the ritual cleaning of the kitchen for Passover. Traditionally during the Norse Yuletide no work was to be done at all, so you needed to be ready to drop all your housework before the celebrations began. To this day, families do a major cleanup to ready the house for the New Year. Sweeping out the fireplace was very important and there was a secret skill in reading the ashes to tell the future, rather like reading tea leaves.
Immediately after midnight begins the practice of “First-Footing”. An ancient luck charm, first-footing involves being the first person to cross the threshold of a friend or neighbor. The first-foot theoretically sets the luck of the household for the coming year.
Traditionally, tall, dark (and kilted) men are preferred as the first-foot. Nowadays, the ceremonial visiting can go on well into the dawn hours, or even for days into the middle of January as friends pay visits to friends far and near. Symbolic gifts such as salt, coal, shortbread, whisky, and black bun (a rich fruit cake) are presented to the hosts; each intended to bring different kinds of good luck. In return, the householder offers gifts of food and drink to the visitors, often from a quaich. Hogmanay parties generally involve singing, dancing, storytelling, strong drink, and eating of the traditional steak pie or stew.
The fire aspect of Hogmanay seems to come from Celtic traditions more commonly associated with the autumnal festival of Samhain (see our blog post on Halloween). On the Isle of Mann, Halloween is known as “Hop-tu-Naa”, in fact. Like many cultures around the world, people feel drawn to the warmth and light of fire during the darkest time of the year. It reminds us that the sun will return and drives off the blues (not to mention evil spirits). Nowadays, a huge amount of creativity and art go into Hogmanay fire celebrations, often with a unique regional twist.
One of the oldest and most spectacular is the fireball parade in Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire. Locals create “balls” of chicken wire filled with old newspaper, sticks, rags, and other flammable material up to a diameter of 2 feet. These are attached to 3-foot long wires or chains. As the Old Town House bell sounds to mark the new year, the balls are set alight and the swingers process up and down High Street, swinging the burning balls around their heads as they go. At the end of the ceremony, any fireballs that are still burning are cast into the harbour.
In Edinburgh each year, the opening event of Hogmanay is a spectacular torchlight procession. In 2014, the event attracted over 30,000 participants. Thousands of torch carriers gather at George IV bridge and proceed through the city center. The finale is a massive fireworks display. Street performers of all sorts, as well as pipe bands and other musicians, add even more color and energy to the various celebrations.
Though not during New Year’s proper, we would be remiss not to mention the festival of ‘Up-Helly-aa’, held the last Tuesday of January in Lerwick, Shetland Islands. A full-sized Viking dragon ship, complete with shields and oars, is pulled by a torch-bearing procession dressed as Viking warriors to the beach. “Guizer Jarl” calls for three cheers for the builders of the longship and after a bugle call, the galley is set alight by 800+ blazing torches.
AULD LANG SYNE
Perhaps the most famous Hogmanay tradition is the singing of “Auld Lang Syne.” The song was originally a poem written by Robert Burns, who based it on a few lines of a traditional song he heard from an “old man.” As the clock strikes midnight for New Year’s Day, the singing begins. Singers form a circle, cross their arms and hold hands. In Scotland, this is done only during the final verse, but in other countries people tend to link up for the whole song.
In the Highlands, there is an old Hogmanay custom known as “saining” (Scots for “protecting” or “blessing’). Early on New Year’s morning, householders drink ‘magic water’ taken from ‘a dead and living ford’. That is, a river ford that is routinely crossed by both the living and the dead such as one on the way to a church yard. After drinking some of the water, the rest is sprinkled around each room of the house, the beds and the inhabitants themselves. Farm animals may also be blessed with it. After the sprinkling, the house is sealed up tight and juniper branches are set on fire and carried throughout the house and barn. The juniper smoke is allowed to thoroughly fumigate the buildings until it causes sneezing and coughing among the inhabitants. Then all the doors and windows are flung open to let in the cold, fresh air of the new year. The lady of the house then offers a “restorative” from the whisky bottle, and the household sits down to New Year breakfast.
Clearly, Hogmanay is a complex and rich tradition. It captures in one holiday so much of what it is to be Scottish. We hope you will consider embracing some of these traditions. Don the kilt, pour a dram, and relish the pure joy of the Celtic soul in the dark of winter.