Although, lately, it’s become a bit of a drunken bash, Hogmanay is actually a very ancient festival.
What? You’ve never heard of Hogmanay?
Sorry! I tend to forget that most people don’t have the advantage of being born Scottish.
For the uninformed, Hogmanay is basically New Year’s Eve, but, like haggis and hating the English, it has a distinctive Scottish flavour. You see, for most of Scotland’s history, Christmas was no big deal. Back in the day, the powers that be in Scotland’s Protestant Church weren’t all that keen on the heathen bits of Christmas (stuff like trees, presents, and mistletoe.) So, rather than muck about, they simply banned it, and for several hundred years, there was no Christmas north of Hadrian’s Wall. In fact, Christmas, as the rest of the world knows it, only became a holiday in Scotland in 1958! Instead, the Scots celebrated Hogmanay on December 31st. The great irony is, of course, Hogmanay is about as pagan as you can get without a human sacrifice. So much for the wisdom of the Church of Scotland!
As with most modern festivals, though, good luck trying to figure out where Hogmanay came from! Its origins are a tangled mess of several cultural influences. First, there is the Gaelic celebration of Yule and the even older winter festival, Samhain. (Or maybe it’s the other way round? I can never keep those two straight.) Either way, these were high holidays on the Celtic calendar for a millennium before Christianity came to Caledonia. Meanwhile, sometime in the 8th century, marauding Vikings started showing up, battle axe in hand, to add a little rape and pillage to the Scottish shore. Some of these Norsemen liked the look of the place and took up residence and, no strangers to wild parties, added their traditions to the mix, including a Winter Solstice celebration. So, by the time Robbie Burns wrote “Auld Lang Syne” (the quintessential New Year’s song) in 1788, Hogmanay was already Scotland’s quintessential winter festival — and had been for 1,000 years.
In contemporary times, Hogmanay is still celebrated as an optimistic look into the future. Most Scots clear out the clutter of the old year, including getting rid of unused items, old clothes and even breaking off bad relationships and settling debts. The point is to welcome the new year with a clean slate. The most vigorously observed custom, though, is “first-footing.” This is the first person to come through your door in the new year. Folklore dictates that it should be a tall, dark man. (In Scotland, short blonde woman, stay home! I’m not kidding!) And he should bring bread, salt or coal as a gift to the household. This ensures prosperity and good fortune in the coming year.
Of course, if it’s Scottish, it includes alcohol. Toasting in the New Year is done so enthusiastically — from Gretna Green to the Isle of Skye — that not only is January 1st a national holiday, but January 2nd, as well. (Pragmatic people, the Scots!)
So (as the man said) we can raise a cup of kindness to last year, but let’s reserve the next two for the year to come.
Happy New Year, everybody! (wherever you are in the world)