Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Hogmanay—A Very, Very Big Deal in Scotland

Torch bearing Scottish warriors in an Edinburgh Hogmanay street parade. 

Scottish nationalists had a bad year.  They lost their long sought-after vote on national independence by an unexpectedly large margin.  The nationalists, always promoters of the unique Scottish culture, will perhaps take extra solace this year in the celebration of Hogmanay—the last day of the old year and the coming of the new.  This national festival and holiday is far more than just a big New Years Eve Party—it is the principle winter celebration, unabashedly pagan in its dim origins and current practice, eclipsing Christmas or New Years Eve after the pale and sickly manner of the English.  It is a very, very big deal indeed.
The celebration is both ancient and complicated, incorporating elements of the Winter Solstice traditions of the Norse Yule, the Celtic Samhain, and the Twelve Days of Christmas, recast as the Daft Days, minus any religious celebration of Nativity.  You can thank those dour old Calvinists of the National Kirk of Scotland—the Presbyterians for more completely scouring Christmas from the calendar than Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans ever dreamed in England.  If Scottish Catholics kept Christmas in their hearts, the kept their mouths shut about it and the practice faded even in their communities.  Christmas did not become a legal holiday in Scotland until 1958 and only then because so many English were moving into the border areas and were employed at firms in the big cities.
But Hogmanay was always a holiday.  In fact the whole damn country shut down to celebrate.  Both January 1 and 2 are Bank Holidays.  And if the second day, New Years Day, falls on a Sunday January 3 is a Bank Holiday.
If truth be known, the Kirk was not thrilled with Hogmanay either.  They predictably denounced it as pagan, which it surely was.  But either they despised paganism less than Papism, or they simply despaired of wiping out the most treasured celebration of the culture, but they could not wipe it out.  After perhaps dampening somewhat the excess of the season for a while, it came roaring back while the preachers in their wigs, bands, and Geneva Gowns whistled in the dark.
The origins of the word Hogmanay is as obscure as the origins of many of the customs associated with it.  Arguing the entomology of the word, which has had more than 30 variations in spelling depending on region and dialect and has only been standardized in the late 20th Century, is practically a national sport on its own.  Partisans of various theories are passionate.
Among the chief theories of origin advanced are.
·         Greek—the scholars of the Kirk surely got it wrong when they argued in the 1693 Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence that it was derived from a corruption the ancient Greek for Holy Month.  This was simply putting lipstick on a pig to dress it up for company.
·         French—This theory holds it was introduced by the French via the Auld Alliance—the traditional alliance between France and Scotland against England.  It is suggested it came from rural northern dialects of Middle French, aguillanneuf meaning either a gift given at New Year, a children’s cry for such a gift.  This is associated with traditions of ritual begging associated with the holiday in some areas.  It is also suggested that it might derive from the use of mistletoe as an emblematic gift of the beggars as in au gui mener or lead to the mistletoe.
·         Gaelic or Celtic—Although the term for New Years in Scots Gaelic is usually either  Oidhche na Bliadhna Ùire, the Night of the New Year or Oidhche Challainn the Night of the Calends, there are clues from folk usages in various areas.  In Manx, for instance there have been reported a remnant of an early folk song that begins with the line “Tonight is New Year’s Night, Hogunnaa.”  But other sources believe this refers to Halloween, once celebrated as New Years.  Others suggest an old Scottish begging plea thog mi an èigh/eugh corrupted over time.
·         Norse—This theory suggests that both the French and the Manx usages derived from a common Norse source, suggested in an old chant, “Hoginanaye-Trollalay/Hogman aye, Troll a lay/Hogmanay, Trollolay, give us of your white bread and none of your gray.”  The troll would refer to the people under the hill—the elves or the hoghmen, and that the begging chant originated in an ancient Troll banning invocation.
The truth is that the word origin is anybody’s guess.  We may just as well accept that it came down from heaven as a special gift to the Scotts.
The customs of Hogmanay vary considerable from location to location in Scotland but certain things are common—fire or pyrotechnics to welcome the New Year, communal conviviality, hospitality and visiting, and the invocation of one very special song.
The lighting of fires to greet the Solstice was common to both Norse and Celtic traditions.  In some rural areas the old hearth fire is extinguished, ashes removed and a new fire kindled.  In this tradition, visitors often bring as a gift a lump of coal to contribute to New Year flames.  In Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire in the northeast slinging torches are created by stuffing newspaper wadding, rags, and sticks into chicken wire balls which are lit and swung around the heads of revelers marching through the town arriving dockside at midnight and throwing the torch balls into the water.  Bon fires are common.  In Edinburgh, a reproduction of a Viking long ship is burned as a symbolic warning to those old invaders.
 Nowadays spectacular fireworks displays accompany The Bells, the striking of the midnight hour in major cities like Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Stirling, and Inverness.  Unlike the fireworks seen in American cities which often are a cue for revelers to head home, festivities in all of these cities continue through the night and into the next morning.
Revlers from the 1950's link arms for the singing of Auld Lang Syne at midnight.

In addition to wide spread communal and street celebrations, pubs, restaurants, hotels, and many families host large gatherings.  These parties involve festive traditional foods—shortbread, a black bun, special cakes for children, herring in coastal and fishing villages, and steak pie for a feast on New Years Day—story telling, dance, the exchange of small gifts after midnight, and plenty of free flowing whiskey.
At these parties it is common to clear the room so that at midnight all of the revelers form a circle to sing Auld Lang Syne.  Arms are linked at the beginning of the final verse which goes:

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
and gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak’ a right gude-willie waught,
for auld lang syne.
At the conclusion of the song all of the guests rush to the center of the room, their clasped hands held high.  And then the revelry continues.
Auld Lang Syne, of course, was written by the beloved Scottish National Poet Robert Burns in the late 18th Century based on fragments of much older folk songs and set to a familiar air. Although not originally intended as a Hogmanay or New Years song—it was intended for any occasion of parting—the Scotts were singing it for these celebrations by the mid-19th Century.  Scottish regiments of the British Army introduced the song around the world.  By the early 20th Century it had found its way into very different New Years Eve celebrations in the U.S. really taking off when Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians began their long run of New Years Eve broadcast from a New York Hotel in 1928.

A First Footer with gifts, including symbolic coal for the hearth.

An important part of the home celebration which continues into January 1 is First Footing.  The first person to step foot across the threshold in the New Year is said to bring good luck.  It is important that the First Footer be a dark haired man.  A blonde or ginger is considered bad luck supposedly because the raiding and pillaging Vikings has light colored hair.  The First Footer is expected to bring gift of spirits, a black roll or other treat, and coal for the fire.  He and his party are elaborately welcomed with a fine breakfast and a dram or two of whiskey.
Visiting between homes continues throughout the day and into the following Bank Holiday and even beyond.  Presents are exchanged.  In some areas the old ritual begging by children continues.
By the time Hogmanay winds down, the whole nation is sated.  Those Scotts know how to party.  Pass the whiskey….

1 comment:

  1. So good to learn these origins, Patrick - many thanks... Blessings for us all in 2015!