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The people of Scotland refer to their New Year’s Eve celebrations as Hogmanay. For centuries New Year’s Eve was the most important midwinter holiday in Scotland, far outstripping Christmas in its importance. Even though Christmas gained a good deal of popularity in the late twentieth century, the Scots still celebrate a festive new year that attracts many visitors to their country.

In the sixteenth century a religious reform movement, the Protestant Reformation, blossomed in northern Europe. In Scotland John Knox (1513-1572), leader of the Scottish Reformation and founder of the Presbyterian Church, opposed all church festivals, as did many of the new Protestant religious leaders. In ENGLAND and Scotland, a certain group of Protestants known as the PURITANS came into political power during the seventeenth century. In their attempt to reform British society they tried to abolish its Christmas celebrations, which they viewed as a disgrace to the Christian religion. After the Puritans fell from power the English returned to many of their old Christmas customs. The people of Scotland, however, took many of the Puritan criticisms of Christmas to heart and never really revived their old Christmas celebrations. Instead, New Year’s Day became the main midwinter holiday. In fact, Christmas didn’t become a legal holiday again until the second half of the twentieth century.

In Scotland the days surrounding Christmas and New Year’s were once called the “daft days” (see also TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS). Indeed, the University of Glasgow holds an annual all-night ball on the last Friday of the Christmas term, which is called the “Daft Ball.” Some reserve the “Daft Days” as a name for the last day of the old year and the first day of the new year, in reference to the lively customs and sometimes zany behavior that characterize Scottish New Year celebrations.

The most popular name for the New Year’s festival in Scotland, however, is Hogmanay. No one can explain for certain the origins of this word. Linguists suspect that it evolved from the old French term, aguillaneuf, which means New Year’s GIFT, the last day of the year, or the celebration at which New Year’s gifts are exchanged. A related Spanish word, aguilnaldo, means Christmas tip, New Year’s gift, or, in Latin America, “CHRISTMAS CAROL” (see also BOXING DAY).
Many more colorful, but less plausible, origins have been advanced over the years. One early explanation suggested that the word came from the Greek phrase, hagia mana, meaning “holy month.” Since it is a bit difficult to explain how the Scots, in the far north of Europe, came to be so influenced by a Greek phrase, another scholar proposed that Hogmanay comes from an old Saxon phrase, halig-mo-nath, meaning “holy month.” The difficulty with this theory is that according to the Anglo-Saxon scholar, St. Bede (673?-735), the Saxon holy month fell in September.
Yet another far-fetched theory attributes both Hogmanay and the nonsense word “trololay,” which often follows it in song and verse, to a French couplet:
Homme est né Trois rois allois.
It means, “A man is born, three kings are come.” Little evidence exists to support the idea that the Scots used or were influenced by this phrase, however.
While some strive to find a Christian meaning for the word, others search for pagan roots. One writer bases his explanation for the phrase on the contention that the ancient Scots worshipped the Scandinavian sun god Thor at the YULE festival that took place around this time of year. He continues by suggesting that they named all sorts of feasts “oels” (or “ales”) and that they called the cup of remembrance drunk at the Yule festival “minne.” Thus Hogmanay Trololay could have come from an old Scots phrase like,
Hogg minne! Thor oel, oell
which he translates as, “Remember your sacrifices; The feast of Thor, the Feast!” The problem, again, seems to be finding evidence to support such a claim. Along these same lines, some have suggested that the French word aguillaneuf comes from the phrase au gui Van neuf, “to the MISTLETOE the new year,” again linking Hogmanay to pagan celebrations. Nevertheless, most scholars reject this explanation of the word.

Gift giving, as well as good-luck charms, figured prominently in traditional Scottish New Year celebrations. In past eras children used to go door to door asking neighbors to give them their Hogmanay, which in this context meant gifts of cheese and oat cakes. They chanted old folk rhymes, such as:
Get up good wife and shake your feathers And dinna think that we are beggars, For we are guisers come out to play Get up and gie’s our hogmanay.
This rhyme usually accompanied the recitation of a bit of a mum-mer’s play (see also MUMMING). Another rhyme works on the listener’s sympathy as a means of soliciting a treat:
Ma feet’s cauld Ma shoon’s thin, Gies ma cakes An’let me rin.
In some places groups of boys called the Gillean Callaig, or Hog-manay Lads, went from door to door carrying sticks, a sack, and an old hide. They recited an old Gaelic folk verse at each house they visited while they used their switches and sticks to beat the animal hide. Then they circled the dwelling place, taking care to move in the same direction as the sun. Householders were then expected to invite the boys in for a treat. Some people added another twist to the custom by bringing the boys inside, singeing a bit of the hide, and wafting the smoke over each family member. All who inhaled the pungent fumes of this purification ritual were supposed to enjoy good health in the coming year, while the boys received a bit of bannock (a coarse oatmeal cake) to take away in their sack. This custom died out in the early twentieth century.

Scottish folklore teaches that the FIRSTFOOTER, the first person to set foot over the threshold after midnight, determines the household’s luck in the new year. Lucky firstfooters possess certain physical qualities. In most regions, a dark-haired, healthy, adult male is considered the luckiest firstfooter. In some places local lore even specifies that he not be flat-footed. Rather than leave the luck of the household to fate, some families arrange for a person with the lucky characteristics to visit them just after midnight.
Firstfooters often bring gifts of food, drink, fuel, or money to the homes they visit. These are considered lucky gifts that help to attract the same goods to the household throughout the year. Some people follow a tradition whereby family members remain silent until the firstfooter enters, places his gifts of food and drink on the table, stirs up the fire, and wishes the household and all its members well.

Traditional folk beliefs warned that the conditions prevailing in the home on New Year’s Eve would be likely to persist throughout the coming year. Therefore, people prepared for New Year’s Eve by paying off their debts, returning borrowed items, tuning musical instruments, washing and mending clothes, sheets and blankets, polishing silver and metal goods, winding clocks, cleaning their fireplaces, and emptying out the ashes. Since superstitions warned that stray dogs were portents of evil to come, people often chased away any strays lingering about their homestead.
Other beliefs advised people to collect the “cream of the well,” or the “flower of the well.” This water, contained in the first bucket to be drawn from the well after midnight on New Year’s Eve, was said to be especially sweet and pure. In some places people competed to be the first person to draw it from the well and to gain the luck it was said to impart. People not only drank this water for their health, but also saved some with which to bless their homes and barns.
Many Scots also enacted purification rituals—known as saining— on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. These rituals involved censing house, barn, family members, and animals with smoke, often juniper smoke. Another common good-luck ritual consisted of opening the door at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve to let the old year out and the new one in. Many people accompanied this action by ringing BELLS and banging on pots and pans. The noise chased away any evil spirits or influences lurking about the house.
On the island of Orkney, local lore boasts that Stane O’Quoybune, a 4,000-year-old, 12-foot-tall standing stone, walks down to Board-house Loch in the early hours of New Year’s morning to drink its icy water. Few stay up past midnight to watch for the event, however, since local lore also insists that those who see the stone move will die in the year to come.

The Scots also celebrate the new year by indulging in special foods. One traditional drink, called a het pint, resembles WASSAIL. It is made by mixing ale, spirits, sugar, cloves, nutmeg, coriander, cinnamon, and other spices. Another New Year’s Eve concoction, athole brose, is made from oatmeal, cream, honey, and whiskey. Scotch whiskey or tea may also be served. Sowen — oat and bran gruel sweetened with honey or molasses and spiked with whiskey—constitutes a special dish connected with the holiday. Other New Year’s foods include oatcakes, cheese, shortbread, black bun (a cake made with dried fruit, almonds, spices, and spirits), and ankersocks (GINGERBREAD made with rye.)

Today many Scots celebrate Hogmanay with parties. These may take place in people’s homes, in pubs, or on the streets. In 1993 the city of Edinburgh began its open-air Hogmanay Festival. It has become the largest New Year’s Eve party in Europe and it attracts many foreign visitors. This festival has become so popular that the city had to issue passes limiting the number of those who can attend the events to about 180,000. The celebration takes place over the course of three days and includes pop, rock, and folk concerts, dances, street parties, and a torchlight procession ending in a bonfire.

At midnight on New Year’s Eve Scots link arms with the people surrounding them and sing “AULD LANG SYNE.” This song, whose title means, “Days of Long Ago,” is credited to Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns (1759-1796). Much noisemaking also takes place at midnight, especially the firing of guns.

People all over Scotland celebrate the new year with torchlit processions (see also UP HELLY AA). These usually take place on December 30. People often observe New Year’s Eve by attending ceilidhs (pronounced kay-lees), dance parties featuring Scottish bagpiping and other kinds of Celtic music. New Year’s Day is frequently marked by a variety of sporting events, including traditional Highland activities such as wrestling, tossing the caber (throwing a long pole) and putting the stone (throwing a heavy disk). Other popular sports include shinty, a GAME similar to hockey, and curling, a game which involves moving a puck over ice. Group walks are another common New Year’s Day activity.

  • Firstfooting
  • New Year’s Day
  • Auld Lang Syne
  • Wassail
  • Yule Log
  • Puritans
  • St. Basil’s Day
  • Yule
  • Jultomten
  • Hogmanay
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