Marking a New Year in Scotland

New Year celebrations are popular around the globe and for good reason! There’s nothing quite like having a great big party to mark the end of one year and the beginning of another. Often full of light and merriment, New Year also allows for one final joyful celebration in the middle of what can be a dark and dreich winter. Perhaps this is why New Year celebrations are particularly important in the Scottish calendar?

In this blog, we will be going through some of the greatest mysteries surrounding Scottish New Year celebrations, or Hogmanay as it is known here in Scotland, as well as some of the most common traditions. Sláinte!

 

What does Hogmanay mean?

To be honest, nobody really knows the origins of Hogmanay, which is what New Year celebrations on the 31stDecember are called in Scotland. One theory is that it comes from northern French vernacular words like hoguinané, hoginane, hoginono, or hoguinettes which in turn come from a 16th Century French word aguillanneuf which translates to a gift given at New Year. This is actually one of the more plausible theories as up until recently it was common practice to exchange small gifts at New Year. Also, the last part of the word could be a reference to l’an neuf which means ‘New Year’, and even today ‘Au gui l’an Neuf’ is a common French phrase used to wish people a Happy New Year.

Other less popular theories as to the origins of the word Hogmanay are that it may come from our neighbours down south, as Anglo-Saxon haleg monath means ‘holy month’. Or perhaps even Scandinavian as hoggo notmeans ‘yule’ and could therefore reference Scotland’s more Pagan and Scandinavian history. In fact, Scandinavian Scotland refers to a period from the 8th to the 15th century when vast swathes of territory across Scotland were held by Viking and Norse settlers. This also explains the similarities between Scandinavian and Scots, with words like braw, bairn, burn, greetin, hoose, keek, and muckle having shared origin and meaning. Even the word kilt is said to be derived from the Old Norse kjalta which means ‘to fold’.

 

Where does Hogmanay come from?

It can be said with some certainty that many of the origins of Hogmanay date back to the festival of Samhain, which is the equivalent of the Pagan New Year. This traditionally marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the darkest and coldest part of the year and was celebrated by having large gatherings with bonfires and feasting. There were also a series of beliefs and practices involving the Otherworld, or realm of deities and the dead, being closer to ours than during other parts of the year. These aspects have then become incorporated into Halloween.

What is certain is that these Pagan festivals formed the basis of what became a midwinter festival, then a yule festival, and then Christmas when Catholicism was the main religion in Scotland. In 1560 during the Protestant Reformation, there was strong disapproval towards any festival with strong religious associations and by 1640 a Parliamentary Act was brought in that banned Christmas. To circumvent this ban, it is thought that the merriment was merely moved to New Year.

This act was later amended in the 17th Century but New Year was still the biggest celebration in Scotland during the winter calendar. It is not commonly known that Christmas did not actually become a public holiday in Scotland until 1958, which is much later than the rest of the UK. This can be attributed to Hogmanay being the greater festival in Scotland.

 

What are Hogmanay traditions?

Bonfires and feasting still form a large part of many Hogmanay festivities, both large and small. These days in the main cities in Scotland it is common for people to go out and celebrate by soaking up some of Scotland’s best whisky and nightlife. Having people round for a generous meal is also another popular option. Often these different groups of people will congregate outside to watch the fireworks at ‘the bells’. The bells are another tradition in Scotland and are when the New Year is marked at midnight on the 31st December by the local church bells ringing in the new year. These days, most of the time people hear the bells when they are broadcast on the television.

At this point ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is commonly sung, one of Scotland’s greatest cultural exports. Written by the National Poet of Scotland, Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns, (though he attributed it to be a mix of older folk songs) ‘Auld Lang Syne’ can be loosely translated to ‘For old time’s sake’. The song has a beautiful sentiment of maintaining friendships both old and new, the importance of community, and invoking a spiritual togetherness by linking arms and moving in a circle.

Beyond having a party and marking the New Year at midnight, other traditions are still upheld beyond the night itself. One of these is the Scottish tradition of ‘first-footing’. First footing represents the first-foot, or first visit to a person’s house after midnight on New Year’s Eve. Who your first visitor may be is also said to be a sign of your fortune in the year to come. It is quite common to bring a small gift with you, usually involving food and drink. One traditional present is to gift the homeowners a lump of coal to help them heat the house during your visit. There are also a few superstitions regarding first-footing. One of these is that whoever visits your house first should be a man with dark hair. While this may seem a little odd at first, that sentiment is said to stem from the days of Viking invasions when a blond man visiting your house may have represented something unpleasant! Other superstitions include it being bad luck to have a woman as your first visitor, someone with red hair, or a doctor. It is not entirely certain why a woman or someone with red hair could be seen as bringing bad luck, but if your first visitor of the year is a doctor then it could be said to represent illness in the house.

New Year’s Day is also a holiday in Scotland, with a lot of businesses closed for the day. One popular tradition is to have a Steak Pie for dinner, usually with family. This is often done in combination with a ‘first-foot’ visit to a house after New Year’s Eve.

This year Hogmanay celebrations will likely be slightly different than they have been in the past. However, we cannot wait to have you first-foot at The Beresford Lounge next year! And don’t worry, we will have plenty for you to eat and drink.

 

2021 New Year Countdown

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2021 New Year Countdown

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