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 Hogmanay &
 First Footing

The Scots have become renowned the world over for the manner in which they celebrate the coming of the New Year. The origins of the Hogmanay New Year custom is as ancient as it is diverse. The very fact that Scotland chose to celebrate the New Year in preference to Christmas is said to have its roots in the Scottish Church, which viewed the Christmas celebrations as 'popish and superstitious'. It has always been that the further north one travels in Britain, the more intense is the swing in celebrations towards the New Year. 

Nobody knows for sure where the word "Hogmanay" came from. Opinions differ as to whether it originated from the Gaelic oge maidne ("new morning"), or Anglo-Saxon Haleg Monath ("Holy Month"), or Flemish hoog ("high" or "great"), min ("love" or "affection") and dag ("day"), or from the French au gui mener ("lead to the mistletoe"). The most likely source seems to be the French Norman word hoguinané, "Homme est né" or "Man is born".  In France the last day of the year when gifts were exchanged was "aguillaneuf" ("gift at New Year"). In Normandy presents given at that time were "hoguignetes". 

Hogmanay's roots could reach back to the pagan practice of sun and fire worship in the deep mid-Winter. This evolved into the ancient Saturnalia, a great Roman Winter festival, where people celebrated completely free of restraint and inhibition. The Vikings celebrated Yule, which became the twelve days of Christmas, or the "Daft Days" as they became known in Scotland. The Winter festival went underground with the Reformation and ensuing years, but re-emerged at the end of the 17th Century. Since then the customs have continued to evolve to the modern day.

Such was the importance of Hogmanay, it was once the custom in Scotland to give gifts on the first of January at the turn of midnight, and indeed until the 18th century the number of gifts given then far outshone those given at Christmas, in both number and quality. It is only very recently that some parts of Scotland ended the practice of giving tokens to children, which themselves were called "hogmanays".

Of all the traditions and customs of Hogmanay, two major themes survive  The first is that the New Year must begin on a happy note, with a clean break from all that may have been bad in the old year. It is from this underlying theme that the most common of all Hogmanay traditions has its root, the New Year resolution.  The second, but much later tradition is the singing of Auld Lang Syne, with the most popular variation written by Robert Burns in about 1793.

There are a number of old traditions that still die hard. In one area of Scotland for example, on Hogmanay, boys form themselves into bands. The leader of each band should wear a sheep-skin, while a member must carry a sack. The bands then move from house to house, reciting a Gaelic rhyme. On being invited into the home by the woman of the family, the leader would walk clockwise around the fire, or around a chair in these modern times, while everyone else hit the skin with sticks. The boys would be given some bannocks for their sack, before moving on to the next house.

This is of course a rather localized tradition, but it shows the diversity of the celebration. More common throughout the rest of Scotland was the traditional firing of guns at midnight, followed by the men setting out to "first foot" all those houses to which they know they are welcome. The minimum requirement is a bottle of whisky and a bannock of oatcake, and it is this tradition that is almost universal.

First Footing

Traditionally, it has been held that the New Year will be a prosperous one if, at the strike of midnight, a "tall, dark stranger" appears at your door with a lump (or skuttle) of coal for the fire, or a cake or coin. In exchange, you offered him food, wine or a wee dram of whisky, or the traditional Het Pint, which is a combination of ale, nutmeg and whisky. It's been suggested that the fear associated with blond strangers arose from the memory of blond-haired Viking’s raping and pillaging Scotland circa 4th to 12th centuries.  What's more likely to happen these days is that groups of friends or family get together and do a tour of each others' houses. 

 

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February 26, 2009