As we enter a new year (by one arbitrary calendar anyway), I thought it would be interesting to explain some of the Scottish new-year traditions of Hogmanay: most of my readers are Scottish, but this might be of interest to any recent arrivals here or international visitors.
What is Hogmanay?
Hogmanay is the Scottish New Year’s Eve celebration, which takes place on December 31st. Like most new years celebrations everywhere, it is a time for friends and family to come together. To celebrate the end of the old year and the start of the new one. Hogmanay is possibly the largest and most important holiday in Scotland, and it is celebrated with various traditions and rituals.
Origins and Meaning of Hogmanay
The word Hogmanay comes from the French, via late Middle English: probably from Old French haguimenio, (modern French aguillanneuf) ‘New Year’s Day, New Year’s gift, or from the French word ‘hoginane‘ meaning ‘gala day’ and most likely brought to Scotland by Mary, Queen of Scots on her return from France in 1561.
The origins of all the Hogmanay traditions are somewhat unclear. Still, it is thought to have some roots in the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain. Samhain, being on 1st November, is more closely associated now with Halloween, and for clear reasons; Samhain was a celebration of the end of the harvest season, and it marked the start of the “darker half” of the year. It was believed that the veil between the living and the dead was thin at this time, and people would dress up in costumes to ward off evil spirits. However, it was also the Celtic New Year’s celebration, so some traditions transferred over to the new calendar.
Many of the traditions have close parallels with other Celtic cultural areas such as Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and parts of France, highlighting their ancient provenance.
From the 1640s, Christmas was made illegal in Scotland ( and was technically illegal for over 300 years!) So Hogmanay developed into a more secular alternative celebration. Christmas wasn’t a public holiday again until the 1950s in Scotland, while we still take an extra public holiday for the new year compared to the rest of the UK.
Modern Evolution of Hogmanay
In more recent times, Hogmanay has become a more commercialised event, with parades, concerts, and other events taking place throughout Scotland. One of the most perhaps overrated Hogmanay events is the Edinburgh Hogmanay Street Party, which attracts tens of thousands of people: however, with accommodation extortionate and Scottish public transport on the verge of collapse, a better experience might be had in other smaller cities; for example, Stirling has a castle at least as picturesque as Edinburgh, will have fireworks over the stunning Wallace monument and will be less crowded, less expensive and less of an anti-climax than the capital.
Many modern traditions are associated with Hogmanay, and these traditions can vary from region to region. Still, some common Hogmanay traditions celebrated across most of Scotland include:
This is the act of being the first person to enter someone else’s home on New Year’s Day. It is believed that the first person to enter a home on New Year’s Day will bring luck to the household for the rest of the year: but it can be good luck or bad luck, depending on the guest! As a general rule, First footers should not be in the house at the stroke of midnight and should bring these gifts:
To help attract these things in the new year. The practice is based on the ancient Gaelic practice of “qualtagh“, as it’s still known in the Isle of Man.
Redding the hoose:
Redding is a new years eve tradition in Scotland to clean the house from top to bottom: with special emphasis on cleaning out the fireplace. This doesn’t just mean you don’t have the same mess to deal with after the Hogmanay party: it’s to give you a clean start for the year ahead symbolically.
Auld Lang Syne:
This is a traditional Scottish song that is sung at Hogmanay. The song is about the importance of friendship and the passing of time. Auld Lang Syne literally means “old long since” but can be translated as “days gone by” or “long, long ago”.
The phrase ‘Auld Lang syne’ is traditional, appearing in poetry at least back to the 1500s, but the current best-known version is from Robert Burns’s 1788 reworking of an earlier poem, claiming he got the words from “an old man singing” – and it was added to an existing melody at a later date, becoming popular in Victorian times. Traditionally at midnight, Scots sing while holding hands, with crossed arms, in a circle.
Fire has always played an important role in pagan winter celebrations and still does, for example, with torchlight processions. In modern times Fireworks are a common sight on Hogmanay, and people often gather to watch displays in cities and towns across Scotland. Perhaps the most
Ne’erday is the Scottish term for New Year’s Day, and it is a time for mostly hungover people to come together and celebrate with friends and family. One modern new year’s day tradition is wild swimming, such as the New Year’s Day “Loony Dook” (not officially on this year).
Variations of this tradition are celebrated worldwide, such as the Dutch ‘Nieuwjaarsduik’.
Happy New Year!
Overall, Hogmanay is a fun and festive way to celebrate the start of a new year and is an important part of Scottish culture and tradition. Whether you’re in Scotland or anywhere else in the world, there are plenty of ways to join in the celebration and ring in the new year. So I hope you have a good one and a happy new year!