Hogmanay - A Scottish New Year's Eve Tradition

A guid New Year to ane an` a` and mony may ye see!

Hogmanay, pronounced "hog-muh-NAY - with the main stress on the last syllable - there are many theories about the derivation of the word "Hogmanay". The Scandinavian word for the feast preceding Yule was "Hoggo-nott" while the Flemish words (many have come into Scots) "hoog min dag" means "great love day". Hogmanay could also be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon, Haleg monath, Holy Month, or the Gaelic, oge maidne, new morning. But the most likely source seems to be the French. "Homme est né" or "Man is born" while in France the last day of the year when gifts were exchanged was "aguillaneuf" while in Normandy presents given at that time were "hoguignetes". Take your pick!

Traditionally, the Scots were a superstitious race at the best of times and for an event as significant as the dawning of a new year, customs, rituals and traditions inevitably arose around the country. Many of these have now disappeared but others have carried on down through the years and some have even become essential ingredients of today's celebrations.

What are the origins of Hogmanay?

Hogmanay's roots reach back to the animistic practice of sun and fire worship in the deep mid-Winter. This evolved into the ancient Saturnalia, a great Roman Winter festival, where people celebrated completely free of restraint and inhibition. The Vikings celebrated Yule, which became the twelve days of Christmas, or the "Daft Days" as they became known in Scotland. The Winter festival went underground with the Reformation and ensuing years, but re-emerged at the end of the 17th Century. Since then the customs have continued to evolve to the modern day. It is only in recent years that Hogmanay has been celebrated on such a large scale: the first event of its kind was at "Summit in the City" in 1992 when Edinburgh hosted the European Union Heads of State conference. Edinburgh's Hogmanay festival was so successful that it spawned similar events throughout Scotland for the millennium Hogmanay festivities. Generally, the big three Scottish Ne'er celebrations are Edinburgh's Hogmanay, Glasgow's Hogmanay and Stirling's Hogmanay.

What is the symbolism of fire at Hogmanay?

The flame and fire at Hogmanay symbolizes many things. The bringing of the light of knowledge from one year to the next, lighting the way into the next uncharted century, putting behind you the darkness past, but carrying forward its sacred flame of hope and enlightenment, and in this day, a new fresh year – burning away of the old to make space for the new.

Cleaning the House

The last day of the year was traditionally regarded as a time of preparation: business would concluded to let the new year start afresh and houses were thoroughly cleaned (known as 'redding'). Fireplaces in particular had to be swept out and in a variation on reading tea-leaves, the ashes of the last fire of the old year were believed to show what lay ahead in the new year.
Many also take a new broom and "sweep out the old and sweep in the new year".

Pieces from a Rowan tree would be placed above a door to bring luck. In the house would be placed a piece of mistletoe, not for kissing under like at Christmas, but to prevent illness to the householders. Pieces of holly would be placed to keep out mischievous fairies and pieces of hazel and yew, which were thought to have magical powers and would protect the house and the people who lived in it. Juniper would be burnt throughout the house, then all the doors of the home would be opened to bring in fresh air. The house was then considered ready to bring in the New Year.

Debts would be paid by New Year's Eve because it was considered bad luck to see in a new year with a debt.

What is First Footing?

Traditionally, it has been held that your new year will be a prosperous one if, at the strike of midnight, a "tall, dark stranger" appears at your door with a lump of coal for the fire (to ensure that the house would be warm and safe), shortbread or black bun (a type of fruit cake) to symbolize that the household would never go hungry, or a coin (symbolizing a blessing of prosperity in the coming year). These were symbolic gifts to 'handsel' the house. In exchange, you offered him food, wine or a wee dram of whisky, or the traditional Het Pint, which is a combination of ale, nutmeg and whisky. It's been suggested that the fear associated with blond strangers arose from the memory of blond-haired Viking’s raping and pillaging Scotland circa 4th to 12th centuries. Redheads are also considered very unlucky.

What's more likely to happen these days is that groups of friends or family get together and do a tour of each other’s houses. Each year, a household takes it in turn to provide a meal for the group. In many parts of Scotland gifts are exchanged after the turn of midnight.

"Handselling" was the custom of gift giving on the first Monday of the New Year but this has died out.

Immediately after midnight it is traditional to sing Robert Burns' "For Auld Lang Syne". It was written in old Scots, the language commonly spoken in Scotland until 1707 when Scotland's Parliament dissolved itself and was merged with England. Burns claimed it was based on an earlier fragment, and certainly the tune was in print over 80 years before he published his version in 1788...

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak a cup o'kindness yet
For auld lang syne!

Torch and Bonfire Ceremonies

The magical firework display and torchlight procession in Edinburgh - and throughout many cities in Scotland - is reminiscent of the ancient custom at Scottish Hogmanay Pagan parties hundreds of years ago.

The traditional New Year ceremony of yesteryear would involve people dressing up in the hides of cattle and running around the village being hit by sticks. The festivities would also include the lighting of bonfires, rolling blazing tar barrels down the hill and tossing torches. Animal hide was also wrapped around sticks and ignited which produced a smoke that was believed to be very effective to ward off evil spirits. The smoking stick was also known as a Hogmanay.

In addition to national observance, many local areas have their own customs when it comes to celebrating Hogmanay. Some of these customs do continue, especially in the small, older communities in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland where tradition, along with language and dialect are kept alive and well. On the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, the young boys form themselves into opposing bands; the leader of each wears a sheepskin, while a member carries a sack. The bands move through the village from house to house reciting a Gaelic rhyme. On being invited inside, the leader walks clockwise around the fire, while everyone hits the skin with sticks. The boys would be given some bannocks - fruit buns - for their sack before moving on to the next house.

In the town of Burghead, Moray, an ancient tradition called "burning the clavie" takes place each year on January 11. The clavie is a big bonfire, fueled primarily by split casks. One of these is joined back together with a big nail, filled with flammable material, and lit on fire. Flaming, it's carried around the village and up to a Roman altar known to residents as the Douro. The bonfire is built around the clavie. When the burnt clavie crumbles, the locals each grab a lit piece to kindle a fire in their own hearth.

In Stonehaven, Kincardineshire, the locals make giant balls of tar, paper and chicken wire. These are attached to several feet of chain or wire, and then set on fire. A designated "swinger" whirls the ball around his head and walks through the village streets to the local harbor. At the end of the festival, any balls still on fire are cast into the water. This is quite an impressive sight in the dark!

One of the most spectacular Fire ceremonies takes place in Stonehaven, just south of Aberdeen on the North East coast. Giant fireballs, weighing up to 20 pounds are lit and swung around on five feet long metal poles, requiring 60 men to carry them as they march up and down the High Street. The origin of the pre-Christian custom is believed to be linked to the Winter Solstice of late December with the fireballs signifying the power of the sun, to purify the world by consuming evil spirits.

And it is worth remembering that January 2nd is a holiday in Scotland as well as the first day of the year - to give us all time to recover from a week of merry-making and celebration, all part of Scotland's fascinating cultural legacy of ancient customs and traditions surrounding the pagan festival of Hogmanay.

New year resolutions hark bark to the notion at the core of many Hogmanay traditions of old: making a new start. After a particularly heavy night's partying, a common resolution made by many is 'never again'. But of course, if there one Hogmanay tradition that's never likely to fade it's that most resolutions rarely last beyond the end of January so don't feel too bad if you fall by the wayside.

In conclusion...

An integral part of the Hogmanay partying, which continues very much today, is to welcome friends and strangers, with warm hospitality and of course a kiss to wish everyone a Guid New Year. The underlying belief is to clear out the vestiges of the old year, have a clean break and welcome in a young, New Year on a happy note.