With the Christmas holidays looming, there is a palpable desire among students for their post-exam freedom. Yet though many return home, this free time is a great opportunity for the many students coming from the rest of Britain, Europe and further afield to participate in Scottish culture. Nowhere is this more observable than in the Scottish celebration of Hogmanay, celebrated on New Year’s Eve, which is a poorly understood festival.
Hogmanay is a Scottish celebration, coming from the Scots word for the last day of the year, and is simply an alternative form of New Year’s celebrations. The origins of Hogmanay are unclear; there may be Norse or Gaelic roots, with aspects of the traditions coming from the celebration of the Winter Solstice and from the traditions of Samhain. There is also the inclusion of fire in many Hogmanay celebrations which is believed to have Viking origins.
With the Presbyterian Reformation in Scotland, Christmas was seen as too Catholic and, from 1583, was discouraged before being actively banned from 1640 to 1658. This lack of real festivity during Winter would likely have contributed to the formation of Hogmanay as a major Scottish celebration as it provided an alternative source for gift-giving and festivity in the middle of the cold, dark season.
Hogmanay has had different traditions through time, which further vary by location within Scotland. Bakers in St. Andrews would bake special cakes for Hogmanay celebrations, baked on ‘Cake Day’, and would distribute these among local children. An old custom in the Highlands was the Saining – the Scots for protecting and blessing – of the household and livestock. This would involve the sprinkling of ‘magic water’ around the house, before burning juniper branches to fill the house with smoke, and then drinking whisky with a full breakfast on the morning of New Year’s Day. This custom still survives among a few and has seen a small revival in recent years. There is also a maintained tradition of ‘first footing’ among Scots. Friends and family would visit each other on New Year’s day bringing gifts such as shortbread or fruitcake, and the visitors would be offered a wee dram of whisky as thanks. It was believed that the characteristics of the first visitor to the house would influence the fortune of the house for the rest of the year; the luckiest visitor would be a tall, dark, handsome man, while a redheaded woman would bring bad luck.
Although the old customs of gift-giving and visiting the houses of friends continues throughout Scotland, more modern celebrations have also since developed. Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, has a fireball swinging festival each year, where local people make balls of wire filled with flammable materials, set them on fire, and swing them through the town centre.
Through the years, the Edinburgh Hogmanay has grown to include a pipe band, street drumming, food, and fireworks to entertain the crowds. Now a three-day festival, the ceremony includes a street party (this year hosted by Johnnie Walker), a Torchlight Procession through Edinburgh and a spectacular fireworks display. While there have been significant changes in the festival, the most important aspect of any Hogmanay is continued across Scotland: the singing of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, a poem by Robbie Burns.
Image: artbees via Flickr