Monday, December 31, 2012

The Origins of Hogmanay

Only one nation in the world can celebrate the New Year, or Hogmanay, with such revelry and passion -- the Scots!  But what are the actual origins of Hogmanay, and why should a tall dark stranger be a welcome visitor after midnight?

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, or men from an even more northerly latitude than Scotland, paid particular attention to the arrival of the Winter Solstice or the shortest day, and fully intended to celebrate its passing with some serious partying.

In Shetland, where the Viking influence remains strongest, New Year is still called Yules, deriving from the Scandinavian word for the midwinter festival of Yule.

It may surprise many people to note 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 1950's.  The reason for this dates back to the years of Protestant Reformation, when the straight-laced Kirk proclaimed Christmas as a Popish or Catholic feast, and as such needed banning. 

And so it was, right up until the 1950's that many Scots worked over Christmas and celebrated their winter solstice holiday at New Year when family and friends would gather for a party and to exchange presents, which came to be known as Hogmanays.


Redding the House
Like the annual spring cleaning in some communities, or the ritual cleaning of the kitchen for 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.

The Singing of Auld Lang Syne
Immediately after midnight it is tradition to sing Robert Burns's "Auld Lang Syne".  Burns published his version of this popular little ditty in 1788, although the tune was in print over 80 years before this.

First Footing
After the stroke of midnight, neighbors visit each other, bearing traditional symbolic gifts such as shortbread or black bun (a kind of fruit cake), pieces of coal, salt, and a week dram of whisky.  The visitor, in turn, is offered a small whisky.  To ensure good luck for the house the first foot should be a dark male.  This bit is believed to be a throwback to the Viking days, when a big blond stranger arriving on your door step with a big axe meant big trouble. 

Bonfires and Fires
The firework displays and torchlight processions now enjoyed throughout many cities in Scotland are reminders of the ancient pagan parties from those Viking days of long ago.  The traditional New Year ceremony would involve people dressing up in the hides of cattle and running around the village while being hit by sticks.  The festivities would also include the lighting of bonfires and tossing torches.  Animal hide wrapped around sticks and ignited produced a smoke that was believed to be very effective in warding off evil spirits: this smoking stick was also known as a Hogmanay.

One of the most spectacular fire ceremonies takes place in Stonehaven, south of Aberdeen on the north east coast.  Giant fireballs are swung around on long metal poles each requiring many men to carry them as they are paraded up and down the High Street.  Again, the origin is believed to be linked to the Winter Solstice with the swinging fireballs signifying the power of the sun, purifying the world by consuming evil spirits.

Many of these customs continue today, especially in the older communities of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.  On the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, the young men and boys form themselves into opposing bands; the leader of each wears a sheep skin, while another member carries a sack.  The bands move through the village from house to house reciting a Gaelic rhyme.  The boys are given bannocks (fruit buns) for their sack before moving on to the next house.

For visitors to Scotland it is worth remembering that January 2nd is also a national holiday in Scotland, this extra day being barely enough time to recover from a week of intense revelry and merry-making. All of which helps to form part of Scotland's cultural legacy of ancient customs and traditions that surround the pagan festival of Hogmanay.

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