Hogmany - Scottish New Year's


Author: Grace Carter
Last update: 09/6/2008

Celebrated by:

The bonnie, bonnie people of Scotland.


December 31 - January 2

Next year will be:


How to say Happy New Year:

Despite what a thick brogue might lead you to believe, the good people of Scotland speak English. Hence, "Happy New Year," is a perfectly acceptable way to address your fellow revelers. Pluckier souls may want to test the vernacular: "Lang may yer lum reek wi' ither folks' coal," or "Long may your chimney smoke with other people's coal." A more emphatically good-natured greeting might be: "May the best ye hae ivver seen be the warst ye'll ivver see." If you can't guess, that means "May the best you've ever seen be the worst you'll ever see." Awww. How nice! But if you're really keen to lure a young Scotch lass or laddy beneath the mistletoe, attempt this one: "Bliadhna mhathùr!" (pronounced BLEEne vah OOHR). That's Gaelic for Happy New Year. You probably won't pronounce it right, but you might score points for trying.


Nobody is quite sure when the boozefest that is Hogmanay first began. Scholars tell us that the celebration is an amalgam of much-eroded Pagan and Viking rituals. The obsession with burning things? Depending on whom you speak with, that's something to do with welcoming the sun's return after the solstice (a Pagan leftover) or else scaring off evil spirits (a practice inherited from the Vikings). The raucous partying that goes on well into the wee hours of the morn? Perhaps a hearkening back to the hedonistic Roman winter festival known as Saturnalia.

Whatever the origin of Hogmanay, it's interesting to note that it's Scotland's most important holiday-not Christmas. This is a curious fact given Scotland's close ties with that other British Isle, England, where Father Christmas reigns supreme in the holiday kingdom. Some theorize that Christmas fell out of favor in Scotland following the Protestant Reformation, as it was seen as a Catholic holiday. Others believe that grueling work schedules during the Industrial Revolution didn't allow for days off to celebrate Christmas. Not until the 1960s, when an increase in home television sets brought English programs into Scottish homes, did the Scotch government recognize Christmas and Boxing Day as worth public holidays. Hogmanay was it! These days, the lucky Scots enjoy national vacations on December 25 and 26, and January 1 and 2.

Values and traditions:

Any savvy partyer's top ten list of New Year's bashes is bound to include Hogmanay. The ways people commemorate the day vary widely between regions of Scotland, but all are the same in one respect: Hogmanay is the biggest celebration of the year.

Massive booze-fueled street festivals dominate the big cities. In recent years, both Glasgow and Edinburgh have begun selling tickets to deal with the 100,000 plus revelers that arrive on New Year's Eve, ready to rock out to Auld Lang Syne at midnight. Unless you're pretty dim, you probably know that the aforementioned ditty, famously slurred at the stroke of twelve in much of the Western world (and, curiously, sung at graduations and funerals in Taiwan), is of Scottish invention. Beloved national poet Robert Burns overheard an old man singing a traditional air, and wrote down the words that we now know-or more often, don't know, at least beyond the first verse.

Though some commence the merry-making as early as December 28th, the core of the Hog goes down in the hours before and after the clock strikes twelve on New Year's Eve. Between performances by hip Scottish bands and dancers, partygoers socialize and kiss beneath mistletoe. Many's the swain who has toted a twig in his pocket in order to steal kisses from unsuspecting young ladies.

More historic Hogmanay traditions share a curious similarity with customs observed during Chinese New Year. On the 31st, during the day, housewives sweep the house to banish any lurking evil spirits. Then, after midnight, the process of "first footing" begins, mostly for the older or more traditional Scottish households. Friends and relatives trek from home to home, bearing small cakes, coins, whiskey or coal for the fire. As with Chinese New Year, events that unfold during Hogmanay portend the fortune of the year to come. "First footing" is so called because the first person to cross your threshold in the new year will determine the relative luckiness or unluckiness of the next 365 days. Thank heavens if it's a tall, dark stranger, but woe betide you if it's a fair person. (Presumably this last superstition stems from the 8th century days when the Vikings invaded Scotland-a flaxen-haired visitor meant raping and pillaging were likely to follow.)

Some villages celebrate the Hog with traditional Scottish dances called ceilidhs (pronounced kayli). Most exciting, though, are the celebrations that use fire. In Stonehaven, 60 locals process down the town's main street whirling homemade fireballs overhead. Those that are still burning when they arrive at the harbour are flung into the North Sea. The burgh of Biggar burns a bigass bonfire. And many towns in the Shetland Islands practice a pyro-happy ritual of Up Helly Aa: townsfolk dress up as Vikings, horned hats and all, and incinerate a Viking ship. (A raging party ensues; the kind of get together that might have Mike D sticking his you-know-what in the mashed potatoes.)

In a testament to the Presbyterian work ethic, Scottish people don't stop partying when the sun comes up. On January 1st, or Ne'er Day, the whiskey flows freely and friends and family come together for a holiday dinner of steak pie. Then the lucky people have another day off on the 2nd to recover.

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