Hogmanay is a New Year’s eve celebration in Scotland stemming from ancient Celtic and Norse origins. No one source I’ve researched is quite sure where the word came from or what it means and most just give its definition as the name for gifts traditionally given on New Year’s eve. The oldest references to Hogmanay in the 1600s are spelled hog ma nae, hagmané, and hagmonay, but there are over ten different spellings for it and many of them are in French and not Gaelic or Germanic. Scholars believe Hogmanay is a remnant of the Scottish and Norse Winter Solstice celebrations. If this is so, than my prefered origin of the word is from the French “homme est né!” meaning “he (the man) is born!“. Sounded out loud Hogmanay and homme est né are remarkably similar. I believe this is the origin as in 1538 King James V of Scotland married a French Noblewoman and the French language became in vogue in Scotland and continued to influence Scottish patois for centuries afterward. It would also explain why the term can’t be found before the 16th century. Most likely the meaning of Hogmanay is from a Christian influence as in “Christ is born”, but as modern and ancient Pagans believed their Sun god was reborn on the Winter Solstice no doubt the celebration and practices were easily adopted into the new religion. However, despite the adoption many Pagan practices did survive in this Northern tradition, especially the more isolated areas and islands of Scotland.
Customs & Traditions
There are many traditional customs for Hogmanay, some are no longer practiced, but some of the older ones surprisingly still are. Like Samhuinn and Yule, adults would go door to door singing or shouting Hogmanay asking for presents or treats. It was and still is common to share presents or homemade foods with family, friends, and neighbours. Children used to go door to door asking for oat cakes and bread:
“Get up, goodwife, and shake your feathers,
And dinna think that we are beggars;
For we are bairns come out to play,
Get up and gie’s our hogmanay!”
“The King of Light, father of aged Time,
Hath brought about that day which is the prime,
To the slow-gliding months, when every eye
Wears symptoms of a sober jollity,
And every hand is ready to present
Some service in a real compliment.”
One of the most long-standing traditions that can be found in the folk traditions of other cultures is that on New Year’s eve one must clean their house until it spotless, make sure to finish any tasks that need doing that day, and leave out representations of what you wish to attract in the new year – coins for prosperity, food for plenty, dolls for being surrounded by family and friends in the new year, as well as symbols of health, protection, and love. In Scotland many fast or only have a small breakfast and do not feast until after the clock has struck midnight. At this magical threshold hour all the doors and windows of the house are thrown open to welcome in the New Year, and of course whisky, brandy, and wine bottles are opened to for celebration! A feast is set out on the house’s best china and all sit down to enjoy. Everyone is welcome to this feast, strangers off the street, friends of family, acquaintances – no one is ever turned away. This is the main intent of Hogmanay; to be surrounded by your loved ones and to be doing something happy and joyful with them. The idea being you want the future year to be filled with such highs. This is sympathetic magic, it is OLD magic.
“On Auld Year’s morn the countra folk
Wi’ gleesome speed rise soon;
Ere nicht, ilk lass maun end her rok
An’ get her reelin’ doun.
The lads the byres and stables muck,
An’ clean the corn is dightit–
A single life sall be their luck
Wha’s task’s undone or slightit
By them this day.”
It was considered bad luck to have a corpse in the house on New Year’s day, wakes and funerals were to be done before the new year.
One of the oldest traditions was the lighting of the bonfires. After midnight all of the separate parties from a village would follow one torch bearer outside of the village by either a stone circle or another traditional site for one big celebration of music, dancing, and merrymaking to bring back the sun. The bonfires are representative of the Sun, markers in the darkness so it may find its way back to the world of the living. The brighter and bigger the fire, the better the luck in the New Year. On this night of all nights it was the most important that the fire did no go out and special precautions were taken to make sure of this. It was considered to be incredibly unlucky if the fire were to die before the Sun rose or even that the Sun wouldn’t rise at all.
After midnight on New Year’s day it is customary in Scotland for people to go first-footing. First footing is a divinatory folk tradition where the first person who sets foot in your house in the wee hours of the New Year determines the luck and happenings of the year ahead. A man is preferred over a woman, and a man of dark hair and eye over a man of light hair and blue or green eyes. Redheads are especially unlucky to be the first to set foot across your threshold in some areas of Scotland. Some believe those with pale hair are unlucky because of the invading Normans in the distant past. Next to a handsome dark man, a fair woman is the second best choice for a first-footer. Many people purposely have a dark-haired person cross the threshold first, but I believe as it is for divination, it should be left up to Fate.
For almost any festival, celebration, birth, or even buying new property, the Scots always break out their requisite whiskey, aged cheese, and shortbread. As New Year’s is one of their major festivals, they also break out more special fare: black buns (small sweet cakes with dried fruit), oat cakes (noor-cakes), currant or raisin rolls or other sweet breads, or triangle-shaped biscuits. Otherwise the dinner is usually an elaborate fare of whatever foods and preserves were available at the time of year.
Whiskey and mead are very traditional drinks and would’ve been used as drink and for toasts on Hogmanay in place of the modern ginger and blackcurrant cordials that are used for toasts on the stroke of midnight today. Another more traditional drink was Het Pint, which is essentially a Lambs Wool or Wassail – mulled spiced cider or ale usually spiked with whiskey.
“A massy bowl, to deck the jovial day,
Flash’d from its ample round a sunlike ray.
Full many a cent’ry it shone forth to grace
The festive spirit of th’ Andarton race,
As, to the sons of sacred union dear,
It welcom’d with lamb’s-wool the rising year.”
“Hogmanay and Hagmané”. Dictionary for the Scots Language <http://www.dsl.ac.uk/>
Fraser, Marie. “Hogmanay”. Electric Scotland <www.electricscotland.com/canada/fraser/hogmanay.htm>.
McNeill, Marion. Silver Bough: A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals, Hallowe’en to Yule. Edinburgh: Stuart Titles Ltd, 1990.