Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy Hogmanay!

Greeting the New Year with friends and spirits is customary in many parts of the world. Residents of Scotland and those of Scottish Descent mark the arrival of the New Year with particular passion in what is called Hogmanay. It draws on their history of Viking invasions, superstition, and ancient pagan rituals. For many centuries in Scotland, Hogmanay was a far more important holiday than Christmas. Historians suggest this may have been a result of the Protestant Reformation after which Christmas, and its close ties to the Roman Catholic Church, was seen as "too Papist." Others point to the grueling work schedules of laborers during the Industrial Revolution which didn’t provide time off for the Christmas holiday. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that Christmas became a popular holiday. But, New Year's still reigns supreme.

My step-father was from Scottish and English descent and my mother was from Scotland, so Hogmanay was celebrated quite heartily in our home. Although Christmas was a big thing growing up, I think my mom looked forward to New Year’s more. She had always said that that was the bigger holiday “back home”. As we got older and started our own families, it was New Year’s where the whole family got together.

There are many interesting Hogmanay traditions/customs found in private homes and in the Scottish Highlands and islands. A few of them followed my mother from Scotland to Canada.

One custom is to clean the house thoroughly (including taking out the ashes from the fire in the days when coal fires were common) and burn juniper to rid the house of evil spirits in the coming year. There is also the superstition to clear all your debts before "the bells" at midnight. Although I don’t recall her burning juniper, I remember my mom scrambling to get the house in order before the New Year (of course that could also be because she was getting ready for the New Year’s Eve party!) My Aunt Nell (my mom’s sister) used to always say to make sure you have an uncluttered kitchen table when the New Year arrived – a cluttered kitchen table meant a cluttered year in your life. To this day, I always make sure my home is tidy and my kitchen table is uncluttered. I even have a bit of incense burning to replace the juniper (away evil spirits, away!)

Another tradition is First Footing. First footing is central to Hogmanay celebrations. It is the first person to step foot into a home after midnight - that person is thought to determine the fortune for that home in the coming year, be it good or bad. This person can't be just anyone, they have to fulfill certain requirements. Traditionally the person should be a stranger, though this is generally not the case anymore and a friend is usually used. The person MUST be a man (it's considered a very bad omen if the person first entering the home is female), MUST have dark hair (this is believed to date back to the Viking invasion as they were said to be light haired and very unlucky to have entering your home), be tall and fair of face. The first footer should also bring items to ensure good fortune. Traditionally these would be a lump of coal, black bun (rich fruit cake), salt and a 'hawf bottle' (half bottle of whiskey). These represented respectively warmth, food, wealth and good cheer. Once all the criteria were met, the First Footer would be led through the home, placing the coal on the fire and then they would offer a toast to the house and all within it, using the all important whiskey! The first footer is permitted to kiss every woman in the home, hence the desire for the first footer to be handsome.

My step-father, being 6’4” with black hair was always designated the First Footer is our home (if memory serves me right, some of the neighbours asked him to be the First Footer at their home too). We had a lump of coal that was kept specifically for Hogmanay. My mom would usher him out the front door (weather be damned!) with his first footing “`kit”, where he would patiently wait for the signal that the New Year had arrived (usually my mom flicking the outdoor light). He would then ring the bell and be welcomed into the home, hopefully bringing luck with him. He had the “sacred” lump of coal which he placed in the fireplace (the fire wasn’t actually lit as we didn’t want anything to happen to that piece of coal), some of my mom’s shortbread (to replace the black bun), and of course a bottle of whiskey. After making a toast to the house, we would all join in singing "For Auld Lang Syne". My step-dad continued being the First Footer right up until the New Year before he passed away.

Another tradition is to make lots of noise when the New Year arrives, again to keep the evil spirits away. So to keep up with this tradition, we always had a New Year’s Eve party. We would alternate where the party was held – one year at our house, the next at the home of friends. On the years that we were at the friend’s house, my step-dad was required to bring his first footing “kit” with him. As we all got older, these parties seemed to get smaller and quieter, eventually stopping all together when my step-dad became ill.

From my house to yours, I wish you all a Happy Hogmanay!

A guid New Year to ane an` a` and mony may ye see!

©2011, copyright Alana Farrell


  1. Happy New Year - I blogged on the same topic and found some interesting things I didn't know beforehand. Bet your Dad was in demand at Hogmanay! Jo

  2. Happy New Year to you too Jo. Yes, dad was in big demand at Hogmanay, and I'm sure he enjoyed every moment of it. My daughter's partner is also tall and dark haired and I tell her every year to make sure that he is the first one to enter the home. I think it's nice how these "old country" traditions follow immigrants to the "new country".

  3. Alana, Very interesting, thanks for sharing. Sounds like you have wonderful memories and had wonderful times. Have a great year!