Today I have been counting my blessings from the passing year, and preparing to welcome the New Year following the traditions of Hogmanay and my Scots heritage. Each year I am asked by friends about Hogmanay and its customs, and this year is no different. So, for those of you unfamiliar with Hogmanay, I’ve decided to post an excerpt about Hogmanay from an article I did last year about how various cultures celebrate New Year.
Meaning the “last day of the year”, Hogmanay is an old, much loved custom in the highlands of Scotland. It dates back to the celebration of the Winter Solstice among the Norse yet also encompasses Gaelic customs used at Samhein. Much of Scotland’s traditions and customs are often intertwined with those of the Norse. When one remembers many people of Scots heritage are descendants of Vikings who crossed the North Sea to invade Scotland, it is not surprising in the least to see Norse influence still in existance in the culture and traditions of Scotland.
The customs practiced at Hogmanay begin at dawn on New Year’s Eve. After a small breakfast, Scottish homes undergo the ‘redding’. They are cleaned from top to bottom until spotless. Items are then placed about to convey what you would like to have happen in the New Year, i.e., coins for prosperity and symbols for health, love, and protection. For example, a piece from the sacred Rowan tree would be situated above your door as a token of good luck. Bits of Holly are used to keep away mischievous faerie folk,whilst Mistletoe was placed to ward away illness. Other bits of nature utilized for their ‘magical’ attributes are wood from the Yew and Hazel tree. This ancient traditions stems from the belief that placing pieces from these trees inside your home on Hogmanay would protect both the home and those who dwelled within.
When the clock strikes midnight, windows and doors are opened to welcome the New Year, and a feast is set for all to enjoy. And I mean “all”. No one is turned away. And since it is a tradition for adults to go door-to-door singing or shouting Hogmanay, quite a crowd could be expected…which brings me to the Scots tradition of “first footing”.
Basically, first-footing is the first person who crosses your threshold after midnight on New Year’s Day. Traditionally, he or she should come bearing gifts such as: salt, shortbread (yum!), whisky, and a black bun (the dense, rich Scottish fruitcake). Another one of my favorites is the Clootie Dumpling (pictured below), a dessert pudding made with flour, sugar, sultanas, currants, spices, and treacle. The gifts are supposed to bring luck to the house and family in the New Year. Naturally, in return, food and drink are offered.
It can become quite the Céilidh or party as everyone who wants to be the first-footer shows up and you have a house full of guests – and lots of delicious goodies. Oh, and if a tall, dark (preferably handsome) man is your first-footer, needless to say that brings the best luck of all! Makes you wonder if whomever invented this tradition was a romance writer, doesn’t it? On the other hand, should a fairhaired man show up on your doorstep, the luck may not be so good, as they are a reminder of the Viking invaders. Hmmm.
Of course, no gathering would be complete without everyone raising a glass and singing Auld Lang Syne, the traditional New Year’s anthem written by the famous Scottish poet, Robert Burns. And lest you think I jest about the level of merriment and partying for Hogmanay, the day after New Year’s, January 2nd, is also a holiday in Scotland…no doubt a much appreciated day to recover from overindulgence.
Among the most popular traditions upheld today are the torchlight processions throughout the highlands. In Edinburgh last year you would have seen, “A bunch of noisy, hairy Vikings and Scottish highlanders, dragging a Viking warship, lead a 15,000 strong crowd bearing flaming torches” as they walk (along with some pipers)from historic Parliament Square on the Old Town’s Royal Mile, down the Mound, along Princes Street and Waterloo Place, and up to the ancient Edinburgh meeting ground Calton Hill. Phew! Talk about a hike! Most cities, towns and villages in the highlands will have a torchlight procession, which culminates with everyone igniting a roaring bonfire and usually features a grand fireworks display.
The bonfire itself has a long history and great importance at Hogmanay. It represents everything from the Sun and the driving away of evil spirits, to how light will always conquer the darkness, and the belief that the bonfire will secure happiness and luck in the New Year. The bigger the bonfire, the better the luck. In fact, great care has always been taken to ensure the bonfire would not go out. Since everyone in the towns and villages would each carry a torch to light the bonfire, certain sure that the tradition must be upheld by the entire community, it would be a terrible omen of bad luck should the bonfire go out before sunrise.
Although I sadly cannot be in my beloved highlands this Hogmanay, the spirit and customs of this special day remains with me and my family. As we draw ever closer to the threshold of the New Year, I hope it is filled with health, happiness, love, peace and prosperity for us all. And may your first guest in the New Year be a tall, dark-haired, handsome man wishing you Happy New Year in Scots-Gaelic with, Bliadhna mhath ùr!
So, Slainte everyone and since I dare not forget my Irish ancestors, here is a very appropriate Irish blessing for Hogmanay (or any day in the New Year). “May your troubles be less, your blessings be more, and nothing but happiness come through your door.” ~ AKB