Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy Hogmanay!

From the Reformation in the 16th century, up through the middle of the 20th century, Scotland did not officially celebrate Christmas. Through the 1960s schools and work places were open and mail was delivered. Paradoxically, it was for religious reasons that Christmas was removed from the calendar –Protestant reformers saw it as a Catholic, or Papist, tradition.

What the Scots did celebrate was Hogmanay, or New Year’s Eve. Up until 1600, New Year’s Day was March 25. Forty years after Christmas was removed from the Scottish calendar, New Year’s was moved to January 1 in order to “bring Scotland into line with other civilized European nations.” By moving the New Year, Scots were able to have a winter holiday and it took the focus off of Christmas.

Hogmanay was brought to Scotland by Vikings in the 8th and 9th centuries as a celebration of the winter solstice. To properly celebrate, there are several traditions or superstitions that need to be taken care of. These include cleaning the house, taking out the ashes and clearing all your debts before “the bells” sound midnight on December 31: the underlying message being to clear out the remains of the old year, have a clean break and welcome in the New Year. Immediately after midnight it is tradition to sing Robert Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne.”

Once the business left from the old year is taken care of, the festivities to welcome in the New Year begin. An integral part of the celebration is to welcome friends and strangers with warm hospitality. “First footing” (or the “first foot” in the house after midnight) is still common across Scotland. To ensure good luck the first foot should be that of a dark male, and he should bring symbolic pieces of coal, shortbread, salt, black bun and a dram of whisky. The dark male is believed to be a reference to the Viking days, when a big blonde stranger arriving on your doorstep was not a good omen! The traditional celebration involved dressing up in the hides of cattle and running around the village while being hit by sticks. Animal hide wrapped around sticks and ignited produced a smoke that was believed to be very effective in warding off evil spirits: this smoking stick was also known as a Hogmanay. Today the festivities still include parading through the streets with torches and lighting bonfires.

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