Thursday, 25 December 2014

The Home of Hogmanay

Hogmanay fireworks above Edinburgh Castle
A freezing sleet swept over the city of Edinburgh, chilling the frozen people of the city as they hurried through grey streets below a greyer sky. The slush under their feet splashed wetly, sending icy shards upwards to soak stockings and trousers alike. The prospect of getting to work and out of the cold was almost something to look forward to on a morning such as this.

Today was the 25th of December but while those in England and elsewhere celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, here in Scotland it was just another miserable winter's day to be endured.

Oliver Cromwell may have cancelled Christmas in the dim and distant past but this was Scotland in the 1950s. Christmas Day itself remained a normal working day until 1958. Boxing Day wasn't recognised as a holiday until even more recently. Christmas, if not banned, was at the very least discouraged and celebrations took place behind closed doors far from prying eyes. 

The Church of Scotland had decreed as far back as 1583 that as the Bible made no mention of any celebrations, and any attempt to mark the day was to fall prey to the evils of the Roman Church. Their evilness knew no bounds and those who celebrated were probably in cahoots with Auld Nick!
With Christmas offering the Scots no opportunity to party, they had to look elsewhere for something they could sink their teeth into. Fortunately hot on the heels of the 'English' celebration came the end of the year. Here was something the Presbytery couldn't find fault with and the people of Scotland seized it with a will and made it their own. That urge to claim ownership continues to this day. You may know it as New Year's Eve, Old Year's Night but in Scotland we know it as Hogmanay!

Why Hogmanay and what does it mean?

No one seem entirely certain where the word comes from although there are several theories. The Scandinavians' feast before Yule was called Hoggo-nott, while the Flemish word hoog min dag meaning 'great love day' fits the tradition of kissing complete strangers on the stroke of midnight at the end of the year. Or possibly Hogmanay may come from the Anglo-Saxon Haleg Monath ('holy month'). Alternatively it could well be from the French Homme est nĂ©' or 'man is born'. In Normandy gifts exchanged on the last day of the year were called hoguignetes. Somewhere in there may be the origin of Hogmanay. Feel free to choose whichever pleases.

Certain traditions have remained unchanged over the centuries. One of the most important is First Footing. It is considered lucky that the first person to cross the threshold after midnight should be tall and dark, although handsome is optional. In former days the First Footer would bring whisky, food and a lump of coal for the fire. These days there is little need for coal but the greeting of 'Lang may yer lum reek' persists.

Any housewife would also make sure she had redd oot her hoose before The Bells. If you were going to have visitors after all, the last thing you would want was folk thinking you keep a dirty house and so it would cleaned from attic to cellar.

Dancing in the streets
Another tradition was to gather in public places as a community to welcome in the New Year together before going round the doors as parties were held to which it was normal for the door to be open to all comers.

The famous street party held on Princes Street in Edinburgh is simply the commercial version of the tradition. Other towns without formal street parties make do with the people organising things themselves. Music, drink, dancing, food, drink and of course drink feature heavily in all these bashes. Did I mention they involve mammoth amounts of drinking?

If there is one thing which unites people almost everywhere in the world these days from Beijing to Moscow, London to New York, Adelaide to Edinburgh is a song written by a lowly ploughman from Ayrshire, it is of course 'Auld Lang Syne.'

So as the Bells chime out the end of one year and the birth of the new, raise a glass, mug, tankard of your favourite tipple, welcome in 2015 and remember, 'Wha's like us? Damn few, and they're all died!'

--Stuart S. Laing


  1. Love the history behind this! Fabulous post as always! Merry Christmas!!

  2. Great post, so nice to hear its origins. My mum (her mother was Scots) still keeps the first-foot tradition. For 22 years my husband has been her first-foot of choice - he is better looking than the other dark in-law who he supplanted!

  3. I had no idea that Christmas was not celebrated until recently in Scotland - no wonder there are a lot of Scots in England, they came here for Christmas LOL! Great post from you young sir! Lovely Merry xmas to you and your family!!!

  4. Great post, although the last time I was in Princes Street for Hogmanay was 1974. I left Scotland 1975, and haven't lived there since. The first year I was married my husband and a friend (of his) who was with us thought me mad as I went round cleaning the house changing towels and so on.

    I still clean around on Hogmanay.... old traditions carry on even if living elsewhere ;)

    hope everyone has a healthy and happy New Year