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Gift at New Year: Reclaiming Scottish Hogmanay

By B. R. Forbes


Originally printed in The World & I: The Magazine for Lifelong Learners, January 2000. Copyright by the The World & I, a publication of the Washington Times.

Download an Acrobat PDF version of the original article here.

Shivering on the front step of a brick house at 11:59pm on December 31st, clutching a lump of coal, shortbread, and whisky, I await the stroke of midnight. If tradition is truly handed down from one generation to the next, at this moment I would be warm, indoors, nibbling little egg-and-olive crust-less sandwiches, singing "Auld Lang Syne" with Guy Lombardo on the TV, and toasting the New Year with ginger ale.

Or if tradition is a shared cultural experience, then I would be spilling my generic dance-club champagne on my gyrating partner and anticipating the midnight kiss that could well last until dawn. Or I would be dashing from a hollow-tree folkmusic concert, past melting ice sculptures, to city hall for First Night fireworks. Instead I had chosen this doorstep, at this time, and this particular re-invention of Hogmanay -- New Year's Eve with a Scottish brogue.

A tenth-generation Scots-American celebrating a uniquely Scottish holiday takes a bit of nerve and a lot of imagination. Boiled Spam does not haggis make. Since discovering this holiday a few years back, I steeped myself in researching a few hundred years' worth of traditions.

The Hogmanay holiday is much like the Scots themselves: no one is quite sure of its origin, it's absorbed aspects of different cultures, it's survived despite great adversity - and a vast quantity of whisky is involved.


Fire festival at the Edinburgh Hogmanay celebration.

Revelry for a Sun Reborn

No one really knows the origin of the word "hogmanay." Is it based on the Greek "hagia-mana" for holy month; or Scandinavian "Hoggo-nott" for "slaughter night" the day before the celebration of Yule; Anglo-Saxon for "Haleg Monath" for "Holy Month;" Flemish "hoog min dag" for "great day of affection;" German "hogg" for "kill" and "minn" rememberance to give us "remember your sacrifices on the feast of Thor;" Gaelic "oge maidne" for "new morning;" or medieval French "au gui l'an neuf" for "to the mistletoe of the new year" which has evolved into "anguillanneuf" for a "gift at New Year...?"

"Holy month", "slaughter night", "great day of affection", "remember your sacrifices", "new morning" - these are all amazingly different concepts for the same holiday! Yet aspects of each are a part of the history of Hogmanay.


This very Scottish holiday is derived from a unique set of forces and cultures. The earliest influence was from the ancient pagans who worshiped the "re-birth" of the sun at midwinter. Representing the return of the sun, fire played an important part in pagan ceremonies - as it does today in the observance of Hogmanay through bonfires and torch-lit processions. Pushing northward from Gaul to Briton, the ancient Romans brought with them the celebration of Saturnalia, known for its feasting and drinking. Sweeping down from the east and north for over 500 years, the marauding Vikings honored their sun goddess Freya with the 24-day Yule celebration, also known for great partying. Revelry agreed with the early Scots' basic nature and they adopted these celebrations with gusto. However, they did take exception to the Vikings' basic nature to rape and pillage.


Edinburgh Castle, location of the death of St. Margaret, who introduced Christian elements to New Year proceedings.


Passion, piety, and politics in the second millenium greatly influenced the development of today's Hogmanay. English Princess Margaret fled the conquering William of Normandy in 1066. Shipwrecked in Scotland, she won the heart of Scottish King Malcolm Canmore. As Queen, she began observing Christ Mass in the middle of the traditional Yule celebration. Throughout the Middle Ages, Scotland strengthened its ties with France in order to strengthen its position against the English. Yule's "twelve days of Christmas" evolved into the "Daft Days," a direct translation of the French "Fete de Fous." This festival involved the election a Lord or Abbott of Misrule, a great deal of revelry, reprieve from work for the lower orders, mock masses, masquerading much like our modern-day Halloween, and the exchange of small gifts. The biggest blow-out was saved for the last day of Yule, Twelfth Night. The French influence continued throughout the mid-1500's with Mary, Queen of Scots. Although Mary's father was Scottish King James V, her mother (Marie de Guise, Regent of Scotland for many years) was French and she was first married to the French King Francois II.

In the sixteenth century, the Christian Reformation brought a narrow view of the revelry surrounding Christmas. The Church of England was created by England's Henry VIII to allow him to divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon and marry second wife Anne Boleyn. Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, was considered by many to be the true heir to the English throne through her great-grandfather Henry VII, rather than Protestant Elizabeth I through her Father's post-divorce union with Anne Boleyn. Mary indulged greatly in the Daft Days merriment - much to the anger of the reformists of the Church of England. After more than a century of struggle between Church leaders and the people, Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas in 1651. In order to escape persecution by the English church and court, the Scottish people slowly began to celebrate the more secular aspects of Yule and Christmas on Twelfth Night - many days away from the Christian observance of Christmas. Not surprisingly, the celebration also became less public and more centered on the home. This non-holy holiday evolved into "Hogmanay," the name of which most likely derived from the slurred French cry of Scottish children running from house to house and requesting "anguillanneuf," a gift at New Year.

Funerary effigy of Mary, Queen of Scots.


Oliver Cromwell and the reformation were inadvertently  partly responsible for the emergence of Hogmanay.


Falling Out of Practice

In the intervening years, many local customs have developed around Hogmanay. Though they are as varied as clan tartans, some common elements remain: cleaning out the old, welcoming visitors, sharing gifts, feasting, lighting fires, "first footing," and of course downing a wee dram or two of whisky! A new year means a fresh start - and a clean house was the first step. Dried juniper was burned to purify the house and the windows were opened to bring in the fresh air. Families would host a party, or "ceilidh" (KAY-lee) in Gaelic, or visit their neighbors with gifts of food and drink. In some parts of the Highlands and Western Isles, young boys would go from house to house to recite a "duan" (Gaelic for song poem, or ode) and they were rewarded with gifts of bannocks (black buns), bread, cakes and sweets. In larger towns, folk would gather together usually at a clock tower, to await the stroke of midnight. Bonfires were lit in town squares and, in some towns, barrels of tar or wood shavings are paraded about.

The most enduring Hogmanay tradition is "first footing." This refers to the belief that the first person who sets foot in a home in the new year determines the luck of the family for the next year. The best luck is to be "first footed" by a tall, healthy male bearing gifts. And he must be dark-haired - since in olden times a visit from a blond Viking did not bode well for the Scottish family! The gifts are usually both practical and symbolic, such as bread or shortbread, coal, whisky, and a silver piece.

Today, the celebration of Hogmanay has taken on more modern tones - and lost many of the traditions.


For our friends Deirdre, Jean-Luc, and Angus in Edinburgh, Hogmanay is one city-wide street party. They have urged us to visit during the last week of December when a staggering number of events will dominate the city: a huge torch-lit procession and fire festival, a thousand pipers marching from Edinburgh Castle to the Holyrood Park (the "Royal Mile"), a massed fiddlers' rally, fireworks, carnival rides, over 300 street performers on the Royal Mile, and concerts of every type from classical to contemporary. And for the year 2000 events, organizers are "limiting" the number of street party tickets to 180,000!


This is in direct contrast with our friend Angus in the western seaside town of Oban. A high school physics teacher and gold medallist in Gaelic singing, Angus usually spends Hogmanay watching the telly with his young family and perhaps raising a ruckus outside at midnight. And downing a dram of Oban's famous whisky would not be out of the question.

In the United States, Hogmanay is a non-event - even in my home of Alexandria, Virginia. Founded by Scottish merchants in 1749, Alexandria is the hub for most of the Scottish events in the Washington DC area: Virginia Scottish Games and Festival, A Taste of Scotland, Alexandria Scottish Heritage Festival, Alexandria Scottish Christmas Walk, National Tartan Day Festival and Capitol Reception, Haggis Shoot, Tartan Ball, Bannockburn Feast, Kirkin' o' the Tartan at National Cathedral, and at least three different Burns Nicht Suppers annually!


And yet... Not a single recognition of Hogmanay. Nor have I found any of our Scottish-American friends and colleagues who observe Hogmanay privately.


This is not surprising. While we are active with our Scottish events and organizations, for the most part our direct connections to Scotland are many generations past. The American culture has diluted traditional Hogmanay events into such traditional events as trick-or-treating, spring cleaning, Christmas dinner, champagne toasts and "First Night" celebrations. As melting-pot Americans, we have turned to other cultural societies to claim or to create some kind of unique identity.


Sharing the "Water of Life"


Scottish-Americans such as myself have had to delve into history to reclaim some traditions - or create a few of our own. For example, the St. Andrew's Society of Washington DC re-invented the traditional "kirkin' o' the tartan." When tartans, bagpipes, and the Gaelic language was banned by the conquering English on the mid-eighteenth century, Scots would sneak swatches of the tartans to the church, or kirk, to be blessed. Since 1941, the Scots-Americans of the Washington DC area have celebrated an annual Kirkin' o' the Tartan, an event much emulated throughout the country.

So with Hogmanay, I have reached back to the traditions of my Scottish ancestors and created my own distinct and personal annual observance. Which brings me to a cold doorstep at 11:59pm on December 31st.

The home belongs to good friends Doug and Barb, whom my friend Nicholas and I knew through various Scottish and Gaelic groups. The four us began celebrating New Year's Year together a couple years earlier. We added Scottish traditions - and now we no longer refer to the evening as "New Year's Eve" but "Hogmanay."


With the diverse history and traditions of Hogmanay, we chose the elements that have meaning for us - and avoided those traditions which may be a bit troublesome in modern America. Such as going door to door singing Gaelic ditties and asking for handouts of bannocks. Such as running around the neighborhood with barrels of burning tar on our heads. Such as cleaning house.


Instead, we focus primarily on friendship - on spending a special evening with special friends. We toast the year past, the year ahead, and our time together at the moment. Much as we share parts of our lives, we share gifts of food and drink. Being Scots-Americans, we particularly enjoy sharing the "water of life," which is the translation of the Gaelic term "uisge beatha" (OOSH-ka BEY-yeh). The modern word "whisky" is derived the shortened term "uisga." While Barb's toasts usually involve the smooth yet complex single malt whisky Dalwhinnie, my drams tend toward the peatier Talisker or Lagavulin. Nick and Doug tend to pick the closest bottle of single malt whisky.

Although haggis is the traditional Scottish dish, the local Safeway supermarket usually runs out of sheep's stomachs and lungs by the time we shop. So we settle for Barb's delicious scones from a traditional packaged mix, salsa and chips as a nod to influence of Scottish-Mexicans, and Nick's heavenly atholl brose. If prepared in the tradional manner, atholl brose would require at least a week of preparation and "aging." But due to popular demand, Nick has speeded up the process to under five minutes. Only a few whiffs are needed to savor this sweet, creamy, whisky-based nectar - but Scots are not known for their self-restraint. As the old Scottish Highland saying goes, "Moderation sir, aye, moderation is my rule. Nine or ten is reasonable refreshment, but after that it's apt to degenerate into drinking."

With one eye on the atholl brose pot and one eye on the clock, we await the time for the most serious part of our Hogmanay evening: first-footing. While good luck for the new year calls for a tall, handsome, dark-haired man to enter the home first, the duty usually falls to me. Nick's coloration is reminiscent of marauding Vikings and Doug is a premature gray. So off I trundle through the back door to the front, bearing an armload of gifts and wrapped in the warmth of atholl brose alone.


Which again brings me to this cold doorstep at 11:59pm on December 31st.


At last the clock strikes midnight. I can hear the neighborhood celebrating the American version of New Year's Eve: TV sets with cheering Times Square revelers, firecrackers, and, since this is Virginia after all, the crack of a lone handgun in the distance.


I knock on the door which opens to my good friends. Taking care to step over the threshold with my right foot, I instead stumble over the Gaelic phrase for happy new year: "Bliadhna Mhath Ùr" (BLEE-uh-nuh VAH OOR) and then: "I bring you coal so that your house may always be warm. I bring you bread so that you may never go hungry. I bring you silver so that you may prosper. And I bring you uisge beatha so that the year may bring you good cheer. Now warm me up!"

And back we go to the atholl brose.

Hogmanay has meaning to me not because my distant ancestors imbued it with spiritual and ceremonial importance. Hogmanay is special because my close friends and I have made it our own. Even if I were to accept our Scottish friends' invitation to Edinburgh Hogmanay mega-festival, it would not be the same. Although I would be in the land of my ancestors, squeezing my way through a street festival and watching fireworks seems far less like Hogmanay than clutching coal and shortbread on a front step at 11:59pm on December 31st.

Traditions adapt and endure. While I have exchanged the egg-and-olive sandwiches for scones and the ginger ale for Lagavulin, I know I will soon be singing "Auld Lang Syne" once again. Written by Scottish bard Robert Burns, this song is the one link between my new traditions and my old. Perhaps because of my age or my experience, I appreciate the words far more then when I watched Guy Lombardo on a black and white TV set. The song celebrates the joy of friendships long remembered and friendships never to be forgotten. What better way to bring in the new year than with good friends and good whisky!


Happy Hogmanay and Bliadhna Mhath Ùr!


For more information on Hogmanay: The Hogmanay Companion, by Hugh Douglas, is published by Neil Wilson Publishing Ltd., 309 The Pentagon Centre, 36 Washington Street, Glasgow G3 8AZ and is available from Unicorn Limited, Inc., P.O. Box 397, Bruceton Mills, WV 26525, (304) 379-8803

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