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Updated: Jan 10, 2022

Here is a tradition that was probably practiced by my Scottish ancestors in the Old World.

Hogmanay is the Scottish name for new year celebrations. It is not known exactly where the word comes from, although it is believed to come from the French word "hoginane", meaning "gala day". It is believed to have first been used widely following Mary, Queen of Scots' return to Scotland from France in 1561. The name could also have come from the Anglo-Saxon "haleg monath" for "holy month". Another possibility was that it was derived from the Scandinavian "hoggo-not" , meaning "yule". However, it is believed that the most likely source is French since in Normandy, presents given at Hogmanay were "hoguignetes."

The big Hogmanay celebrations date back to pagan times many hundreds of years ago, when people used to mark the end of the harvest and the end of the year with a festival called Samhain. This later became a midwinter yule festival, which continued even after Catholicism became the nation's main religion. The period of celebrations became known as the "daft days" with people eating and drinking, enjoying parties and bonfires, and visiting and hosting neighbors. But in 1560, there were lots of arguments about how the Christian religion should be practiced in a period known as the Reformation.

The straight-laced Kirk proclaimed Christmas as a Papist or Catholic feast, and as such, needed banning. By 1640, an Act of Parliament had officially banned the Christmas break, so it is believed that this is what pushed all the partying and fun to New Year instead. Even though this Act was partially withdrawn in the late 17th century, the new year remained the big moment for celebrating in Scotland. It was only in 1958 that Christmas became a public holiday in Scotland, which was later than the rest of the United Kingdom.

There are several traditions and superstitions that should be taken care of before midnight on the 31st December. These include cleaning the house and taking out the ashes from the fireplace and the requirement to clear all debts before "the bells" sound at midnight, the underlying message being to clear out the remains of the old year and have a clean break to welcome the New Year on a happy note and with a clean slate. Immediately after midnight it is traditional to sing Robert Burns' "Auld Lang Syne." Burns published his version of the popular tune in 1788, although the tune was in print over 80 years before that.

It is believed that many of the traditional Hogmanay celebrations were originally brought to Scotland by the invading Vikings in the early 8th and 9th centuries. These Norsemen, or men from an even more northerly latitude than Scotland, paid particular attention to the arrival of the Winter Solstice or the shortest day, and fully intended to celebrate its passing with some serious partying. In Shetland, where the Viking influence remains strongest, New Year is still called Yules, deriving from the Scandinavian word for the midwinter festival of Yule. Customs vary throughout Scotland, and usually include gift-giving and visiting the homes of friends and neighbors, with special attention given to the first-foot, the first guest of the new year.

First footing is a traditional part of Hogmanay celebrations in Scotland, although it doesn't happen nowadays as much as it used to. It occurred when a person would visit friends or family immediately after midnight in order to become the first person to visit them and go into their house in the new year. The first foot, or first person to visit, should traditionally be a tall, dark-haired man. That is said to date back to the Viking invasions, as Vikings were typically fairer haired, so the arrival of a blonde man could have meant imminent danger!

Women were also seen as harbingers of ill fate. The fearfulness of women may stem back to the notion of the Cailleach, a crone goddess of winter and death who took the form of an old woman who, should she come knocking, would undoubtedly mean peril for those inside. Having a doctor or minister appear at the door as a first footer was also bad luck, presumably due to their association with illness and death. It could also have roots in pagan traditions of marking the arrival of the dark half of the year and interacting with the mysterious realm of darkness and spirits, and appeasing them with food and hospitality.

Being the first foot often involves the giving of symbolic gifts such as salt, shortbread, whisky, and black bun (a fruit cake completely covered with pastry), intended to bring different kinds of luck to the householder and ensure that the people living in the house you're visiting don't go hungry in the year ahead. First footers also traditionally bring matches or a lump of coal to ensure the house remains warm in the coming months. A silver coin might be given for prosperity. Home-owners would put on entertainment for their guests after the first footer arrives, and in some histories of the event, the first footer could claim a kiss from every woman in the house.

So next time you think about showing up at a New Years Eve party empty handed, consider taking a lump of coal.

Happy New Year!


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