Ever heard of Hogmanay? Well, it is Scotland's New Years celebration. The celebrating runs longer and has many traditions that find their roots in ancient times. They echo back to the Twelve Days of Christmas, where you held Christmas Eve, Christmas and Boxing Day, and celebrated through Twelfth Night.
My family kept Christmas Eve and Christmas Day for family only. On Boxing Day, we would get out the sleighs (used to be more snow back then!) and go visiting. We took gifts to neighbors and friends. I thought this day more fun. Riding in the old-fashioned sleighs, and being welcomed into homes for eggnog or warmed cider to shake off the chill, were such wonderful memories. Sadly, the sleighs haven’t been used for years, as we see fewer and fewer White Christmases. Also, the family has scattered and finds it harder to come together like we used to.
The Hogmanay name first showed in written records around the early 1600s, but many of the traditions come from a time much older. Some suggest the name stems from be old Norman French of hoguinan (New Years gift). Since the Auld Alliance saw France and Scotland sharing trade and cultures it seems reasonable. A more likely explanation is it could be a variation of Scots Gaelic og maidne (young morning). Still, the Flemish hoog min dag (great love day) might also be the source. Whichever, it shows perhaps several cultures developed the holiday along the same lines, and that it wasn't just confined to Scotland. One has no stronger provable claim to the name than another.
There are many celebrations or simple street festivals, but also you can discover the great, awe-inspiring fire-festivals—of interest to people who love history, but also eye-opening to those unfamiliar with the ancient traditions. These festivals still practice rites and rituals that go back to Pagan times, maybe thousands of years. It’s not hard to find concerts, parties, fireworks and balefires, as well offer a wide range of Scottish fare to satisfy your culinary tastes.
First Footing is one of the customs I always enjoyed. It was considered very unlucky for a redheaded man or women to cross the threshold after the final stroke of midnight. Not wanting to start the year off on the wrong foot, it was hoped a tall, black-haired, handsome man would arrive at the stroke of twelve. This leads to a wee bit of mischief, such as picking a likely lad who fits the bill, handing him a bottle of Single Malt, and sticking him outside, to cross back over at the appointed time. After all, who wouldn't want a tall, handsome, black-haired man to come a calling on the stroke of New Years?
Redding the House is a tradition of a “clean sweep”. It is easy to understand where this one aims—sweeping the house clear of influence of the departing year, and giving you a fresh start. You sweep out the house and clean the fireplaces. Taking out the ashes can see the practice of a scrying skill of Reading the Ashes, foretelling the future much in the manner of reading tea leaves. You are sweeping away all the negative influences that have held sway through the departing year. Once that is done, all brooms and brushes are taken outside and burnt. Keeping old ones invites the negative back in, so you start the year with new hair bushes, mops, small sweeps and brooms. Once that is done, you use lavender, cedar and juniper branches to purify the house, dragging these over windows and doors to protect the house and seal it away from evil spirits. Then, you burn them in the fireplace, the final step to purify the chimney. Thus, you start the New Years all anew.
The bonfires and fire-festival are rooted in Pagan Pictish, Celtic or Norse origins. As reflected in the burning of the lavender, cedar and juniper clearing the air of negative influences, these fire-festivals are a purifying of the land. When the fires died and the ashes cooled, they were spread on farmland. In truth, this potash a fertilizer that helps keep the land arable, promoting good root growth and higher crop production. As with many ancient Pagan traditions, there is a rite, but also a logical purpose behind it. A newer celebration, but gaining more and more attention worldwide—is Up Helly Aa in the Shetland Isles. What an amazing festival! There is nothing like it! However, you can still find fire festivals at Stonehaven, Comrie and Biggar, and even Edinburgh has added this element in their Hogmanay celebrations.
Do you sing Auld Lang Syne at New Years without truly understanding the tradition is Scottish? All over the world every year people sing Robert Burns’ version of the traditional Scottish Air. In Edinburg’s Hogmanay, people join hands for what is reputed to be the world's biggest Auld Lang Syne singing.
Another odd tradition is the Saining of the House. You find this mostly in rural areas, a tradition that involved blessing the house and livestock with holy water from a local stream. After nearly dying out, you are seeing a revival in recent years. Not surprising since Annis, the goddess of wells and streams is one of the oldest Pagan deities in Scotland. You still see her Clootie Wells dotting the landscape, wells dedicated to her honor (where wishing wells come from). After the house, land and stock are blessed, the females of the house, once more, perform a purifying ritual, of carrying burning juniper branches inside to fill the house with the cleansing smoke. Notice, the commonality with the Redding the House? Once the house was filled with smoke, driving out the evil influences, the windows were opened and whisky would be passed around.
These festivals grew in popularity after the banning of Christmas in the 16th and 17th centuries. Under Oliver Cromwell, Parliament banned Christmas celebrations in 1647. The ban was lifted after Cromwell's downfall in 1660. However, in Scotland, the stricter Scottish Presbyterian Church had been discouraging Christmas celebrations as having no basis in the Bible, from as early as 1583. Thus, even after the Cromwellian ban was lifted elsewhere, Christmas festivities continued to be discouraged in Scotland. In fact, Christmas remained a normal working day in Scotland until 1958 and Boxing Day did not become a National Holiday until much later. Slowly, people began to go back to memories of olden days to find ways to make merry and celebrate. Thus, Hogmanay became a mid-winter celebration to chase away the darkness and welcome the light.