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Hogmanay: New Year's Eve, the Scottish Way

by Tori V. Martínez

This New Year's Eve, as revelers everywhere awkwardly mumble and hum the mysterious verses of "Auld Lang Syne," most of them will be completely unaware of the historic and culturally significant celebration that not only launched the lyrically elusive song, but also perfectly embodies it -- Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year.


Far from being just an unusual Scottish word for an otherwise standard way of bringing in the New Year, Hogmanay is an amalgam of ancient tradition and modern interpretation that offers both a quaint glimpse into the past and an unforgettable contemporary celebration. More notably, it has historically held a place few other cultural New Year's celebrations can claim -- that of the most important annual celebration in its country. So important, in fact, that for more than 300 years, Hogmanay actually supplanted Christmas as the winter solstice holiday in Scotland.

The exact origins of Hogmanay in Scotland are unknown, but it was probably introduced by invading Vikings between the 8th and 9th centuries. It's possible the word "Hogmanay" originated from the Scandinavian "Hoggo-nott," the word that described the feast before the mid-winter festival of Yule, but historians and linguists have more often attributed it to just about every other language. Various theories tie it to Anglo-Saxon, Gaelic, Old English, French, Old French, Norman French, Flemish, Spanish and even Greek. Possibilities include that the word was derived from Haleg Monath, an Anglo-Saxon term meaning "Holy Month," and the French phrase au gui mener, meaning "lead to the mistletoe."

Stonehaven FireballsWhatever its origins and etymology, Hogmanay has managed to retain many of its unique traditions and still evolve to suit modern times, despite centuries of change and upheaval in Scotland. This exceptional fusion may have been possible in part because both the old and new elements of Hogmanay seem to follow the superstitious, yet optimistic, Scottish belief that a prosperous and happy year will only occur if it begins with luck, joy and a break with the past.

Accordingly, a traditional Hogmanay first involves a thorough housecleaning or "redding," removal of the ashes from the fireplace, and repayment of all debts -- all of which must be done before "the bells" at midnight on December 31st. It's questionable how many modern Scots actually follow these rather dreary tasks as part of Hogmanay, but there's little doubt that the purpose of each is as relevant today as it was in the past. With a clean house -- both literally and figuratively -- the celebrations can commence with a light heart and a clear conscience.

Perhaps the best-known modern Hogmanay celebrations are the all-night street parties held in cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow, which routinely attract crowds of 100,000. But these are a modern innovation, only introduced as recently as the 1990s. Smaller-scale local parties, balls, and dances known as ceilidhs all offer more traditional ways of celebrating Hogmanay throughout Scotland. Whether large or small, most modern Hogmanay celebrations typically feature live music, fireworks, parades and Highland dancing.

Although most modern Hogmanay celebrations have long since abandoned some of the more unusual traditions of long-ago -- such as people dressing in cow hides and running through the village while being hit with sticks -- many aspects do echo the past. The most formal of the local parties may require men to wear traditional Highland dress, and the New Year is invariably ushered in by bagpipers, followed by traditional Scottish dancing until the wee hours of the morning. And the impressive firework displays, torchlight processions and bonfires of the modern street parties all represent or mimic the ancient traditions of the original Viking celebrations.

In particular, the theme of fire in modern Hogmanay celebrations holds important historical significance and represents "burning the old year out." Some Scottish and far-northern English towns and villages still practice modernized forms of ancient pre-Christian fire ceremonies designed to ward off evil spirits and ensure a prosperous new year. Near Aberdeen, in the town of Stonehaven, Hogmanay celebrations feature a High Street parade of well-trained locals swinging giant fireballs -- by some accounts weighing as much as 20 pounds -- attached to wire handles. In the Northumberland town of Allendale, New Year's Eve is still celebrated with a parade of individuals known as "guisers" carrying burning tar barrels on their heads. Other variations of Hogmanay fire ceremonies are practiced around Scotland, such as the Flambeaux Procession in Comrie and a giant bonfire in Biggar, with most attracting locals and visitors alike.

As curious to outsiders as these revelries may sound, once the clock strikes midnight, Scots celebrate the coming of the New Year in much the same way as in other English-speaking countries -- with kisses, good wishes, celebratory noises and, of course, the singing of "Auld Lang Syne." The traditional song is actually a fairly modern addition to Hogmanay, although it was based on old Scottish ballads and poems that were adapted by Scottish poet Robert Burns. Put to music, Burns' version replaced "Good-night and joy be with you all" in the 18th century as the traditional Hogmanay song. Burns himself thought the phrase "Auld Lang Syne" -- an Old Scots phrase meaning "days of long ago" or "times gone by" -- was "exceedingly expressive." Clearly, much of the rest of the world agreed.

Hogmanay Viking

Almost as soon as "the bells" have stopped and the last verse of "Auld Lang Syne" is sung, Hogmanay stands apart once again with the tradition known as "first footing." Quite possibly a relic from the time of the Vikings, the tradition dictates that the luckiest Hogmanay revelers will receive a visit from a tall, dark and handsome man bearing gifts. Known as "first footers" because they are the first people to step across the threshold after the stroke of midnight, their appearance and what they carry varies in different parts of Scotland, but they always embody an important part of bringing good luck to the new year. Conversely, the wrong first footer can be considered bad luck, particularly women, fair-haired men and people with flat feet. It's said that the bias against blond men recalls the ancient fear of rampaging, fair-haired Vikings.

No matter how or where Hogmanay is celebrated in Scotland, the festivities don't end with the close of New Year's Day, known as "Ne'erday," but continue right through January 2nd. In fact, it's interesting to note that both January 1st and 2nd are public holidays in Scotland, while only January 1st is recognized in England. The extended Scottish holiday marks the historical importance of Hogmanay -- not Christmas -- as the traditional time for gift-giving and mid-winter, or solstice, celebrations. The transfer of holiday observance was due in large part to the Church of Scotland, which in the late 17th century deemed Christmas too "Popish," or Catholic, and discouraged its celebration. Hogmanay's pagan roots, national popularity and ideal timing made it the perfect alternative, and so it remained until the mid-20th century, when Christmas began making a comeback. Although these days Scotland appears to be fully re-indoctrinated in the Christmas tradition, Hogmanay still manages to rival Christmas in popularity and importance.

Even as Hogmanay continues to evolve, it's this sense of timelessness and resilience that distinguishes it as a truly exceptional New Year's celebration. And those who understand and appreciate the celebration know that the "exceedingly expressive" lyrics of "Auld Lang Syne" -- elusive as they may be -- seem like they were meant for Hogmanay alone.

More Information:

Edinburgh's Hogmanay Official Web Site

Glasgow's Hogmanay '05

Stonehaven Fireballs Homepage

The Home of Hogmanay

Hogmanay Ideas and Information at VisitScotland.com

"Auld Lang Syne" lyrics at ElectricScotland.com

Tori V. Martínez is a writer and freelance public relations professional who spends as much time as possible researching and writing on her favorite subject -- history. Several years ago, Tori eschewed the life of a full-time career woman to travel and live around the world, particularly in Britain, where she spent considerable time exploring and researching historic destinations. At the moment, she is living in the US with her husband -- a Spaniard she met in England -- and is happily writing for a variety of online and print publications. For more about Tori, visit http://www.globetrottingbroad.com.
Article © 2005 Tori V. Martínez
Viking photos taken by Simon Hollington, provided courtesy of The Home of Hogmanay; Stonehaven photo courtesy of Stonehaven Fireballs Homepage


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