I was lucky enough to revisit the highlands of Scotland last summer for my nephew’s wedding, having spent many happy times there during my youth.
This celebration was very influenced by Celtic traditions with tartan kilts and frantic Scottish dancing, which is totally confusing for an outsider and consists of much twirling and clapping. Apparently Scottish children are all taught these very complicated dances from primary school onwards, so everyone else is highly disadvantaged.
There was no doubt a lot of Scottish dancing earlier this week. Although Christmas festivities wound down all over the United Kingdom, the really spectacular “Hogmanay” parties in Scotland were underway.
I briefly touched on this topic about 200 columns ago (really!) but, inspired by my recent visit and fascination with Outlander, I thought I would research the topic more fully.
It is surprising but true that Christmas was not celebrated as a festival and virtually banned in Scotland for around 400 years, from the end of the 17th century to the 1950s.
The reason for this dates back to the years of Protestant Reformation, when the straight-laced church under Oliver Cromwell in the 1600s proclaimed Christmas as a Catholic feast, and as such needed banning.
And so, right up until the 1950s, many Scots worked over Christmas and celebrated their winter holiday at New Year when family and friends would gather for a party and to exchange presents. These parties were, and still are, known as hogmanays.
Why the Scots call their flamboyant New Year celebrations “Hogmanay” is unclear but we do know that the word has been around since at least 1604 when it first appeared in written records, but many of the traditions are much older than this.
Theories include that Hogmanay is derived from old Norman French from “hoguinan” (a New Year's gift). Others think it's a variation of the Gaelic “og maiden” (new morning), the Flemish “hoog min dag” (day or love) or, at a stretch, the Anglo Saxon “haleg monath” (holy month).
It is believed that many of the traditional Hogmanay celebrations were originally brought to Scotland by the invading Vikings in the early 8th and 9th centuries. These Norsemen were from an even more northerly latitude than Scotland, so even darker and colder with very short days of only a few hours of murky daylight.
They paid particular attention to the arrival of the Winter Solstice, which is of course the shortest day of the year. Firework displays and torchlight processions around Scotland today derive from traditional festivals where fire was used to purify and drive away evil spirits.
Here are a few other Scottish Hogmanay traditions, many of which are still in practice today:
• The “first-footer” is the first person to cross the threshold of a home on New Year’s Day and a bringer of good fortune for the coming year. Although the first-footer can be a resident of the house, they must not be in the house at the stroke of midnight in order to truly be the first-footer. This person brings several specific gifts to ensure good luck for the coming year: a coin to represent financial prosperity, bread, shortbread or “black bun” (a fruitcake) to represent food, salt to represent flavor, coal to represent warmth and a drink (usually whiskey, known as a “wee dram”) to represent good cheer. The luckiest “first-footer” was a tall, dark and handsome man. The unluckiest was a redhead and the unluckiest of all was a red-haired woman.
• Redding the House – Like the annual spring cleaning in some communities, or the ritual cleaning of the kitchen for the Jewish festival of Passover, families traditionally did a major cleanup to ready the house for the New Year. Sweeping out the fireplace was very important and there was a skill in reading the ashes, the way some people read tea leaves. At a time of year when fire plays a huge part in celebrations, it's only natural to bring a bit of it into the house. After the big cleanup, someone goes from room to room carrying a smoking juniper branch to discourage evil spirits and chase away disease.
• Once everyone in the household was coughing and choking from the smoke, the windows would be thrown open and reviving drams of whisky would be passed around. By the way, the Scots spell whisky without an e (unlike the American whiskey) or call it “uisge beatha” or “the water of life,” the name given by the ancient Celts to this fiery amber distilled drink. They might also call whisky, “Scotch” and you would do well to remember that people from Scotland are Scots, Scottish or a Jock, but definitely not Scotch as this is reserved for the name of the national drink. Oh, and they never drink it on the rocks. Just neat or with a little water.
• The Singing of “Auld Lang Syne” (translates as “times long past”) – All over the world, people sing Robert Burns’ version of this traditional Scottish song. How it became the New Year's song across the Western world immediately after midnight is something of a mystery. Burns published his version of this popular little ditty in 1788, although the tune was in print over 80 years before this.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot and auld lang syne
For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne,
We’ll take a cup o kindness yet, for auld lang syne.
There is lots more information at www.Scotland.org.
I will leave you with a traditional Scottish saying, which is appropriate for New Year: “Lang may yer lum reekm” which means, “May you live long and stay well.”
God bless America, and Happy New Year.