Hogmanay Origins and Traditions

Author: Laura Spence

Date: 2013

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 13 Hairst 2013

Laura Spence


My glass is filled, my pipe is lit,

My den is all a cosy glow;

And snug before the fire I sit,

And wait to feel the old year go[1].

Hogmanay — the passing of the old year, the dawning of the new. Right through history, the seasonal calendar has marked the passing of time; and this turning point of the year has been celebrated with feasting, drinking and special rites to bring good fortune. The ancient Romans celebrated the winter festival of ‘Saturnalia’, while the Scandinavians in the dark north were even more aware of the passing of the shortest day. In Shetland, with its strong Viking influence, the people celebrated ‘Yule’. Houses were decorated with mistletoe and evergreens; there was feasting and dancing and fires were lit.

Today, ancient traditions blend with modern interpretation in a vibrant celebration of New Year’s Eve. Hogmanay in Scotland sees thousands of revellers take to the streets, while in the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh it has become a huge ticketed festival with celebrations stretching from early evening to reach a crescendo by midnight. Minutes before the start of the new year, a lone piper plays, and then clock bells everywhere chime at the turn of midnight. There’s lots of kissing, and everyone sings ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Elsewhere, customary first footing and ceilidhs take place and toasts are drunk to the health of everyone in sight as well as absent friends.

So where does today’s Hogmanay originate? When did the winter solstice and ancient rites develop into the festival we celebrate today? One possibility is that today’s Hogmanay really derives from the original Twelve Days of Christmas, known as ‘The Daft Days’, immortalised in a poem of that name by 18th-century Scots poet, Robert Fergusson.

Now mirk Decembers dowie face

Glours our the rigs wi’ sour grimace,

While, thro’ his minimum of space,

The bleer-ey’d sun

Wi’ blinkin light and stealing pace,

His race doth run…

When merry Yule-day comes, I trow

You’ll scantlins find a hungry mou;

Sma’ are our cares, our stamacks fou

O’ gusty gear,

And kickshaws, strangers to our view,

Sin Fairn-year.

Ye browster wives, now busk ye bra,

And fling your sorrows far awa’;

Then come and gie’s the tither blaw

Of reaming ale,

Mair precious than the well of Spa,

Our hearts to heal…

Let mirth abound, let social cheer

Invest the dawning of the year;

Let blithesome innocence appear

To crown our joy,

Nor envy wi’ sarcastic sneer

Our bliss destroy…

The fun of the Daft Days ended with Twelfth Night, known as Uphalieday in Scotland. This day was always a very special festival with dancing, plays and a night of endless revelry and merriment — all the enjoyments of Yule brought together into one great night of daftness. In 18th- and 19th-century Scotland, the Church frowned upon excessive festivity at Christmas itself — so it was this period afterwards that became the much-loved public holiday, associated with conviviality, whisky and dancing.

So, what of the name Hogmanay? Where does that come from? Well, New Year’s Eve has been known by several different names. One tradition saw people going round the doors on New Year’s Eve guising for food, so it became known as Cake Day, a name still alive in parts of Scotland and in the north of England. Older folk sometimes talk about Old Year’s Night. Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary, in a quotation from 1696, tells us, ‘It is ordinary among some plebeians to go about from door to door upon New Year’s Eve, crying ‘Hagmana’, a corrupted word from the Greek ‘Hagia-mana’ which signifies ‘the holy month’.

Most people, however, believe the name Hogmanay derives from a French New Year tradition. The French would give each other presents on the last day of the year and it was common for the poor to take to the streets shouting ‘Au gui l’an neuf’. This is a very tempting explanation since gui is the French word for mistletoe, believed to be a sacred plant. Hogmanay may well be a corruption of au gui l’an neuf meaning ‘to the mistletoe of the new year’. So, although nobody knows for certain where the origins of the word Hogmanay lie, it is difficult to ignore the influence of the Auld Alliance on cultural traditions.

It was industrialisation and the expansion of towns during the 19th century that really made Hogmanay the common man’s festival, for it marked the only break in the long winter for working men and women, and they were determined to make the most of it.

It became the custom to gather together at a convenient central point, usually the square, the mercat cross, or outside the church. The town clock was popular because one could be sure of the exact stroke of midnight. As the clock’s hands moved towards the magic moment, the crowd fell silent, counting the seconds, holding their breath and waiting for the first stroke of twelve.

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

The flying cloud, the frosty light:

The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,

Ring, happy bells, across the snow:

The year is going, let him go;

Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring in the valiant man and free,

The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Ring out the darkness of the land,

Ring in the Christ that is to be.[2]

Nowadays, the magic of Hogmanay is kept alive by some with an alchemy of customs and traditions. It is considered bad luck for the house to be untidy at midnight on Hogmanay, so housewives keep busy scrubbing and polishing until the house shines. Fireplaces are swept out and polished and some people read the ashes of the very last fire of the year, to see what the new year will hold. Byres too are cleaned and purified with juniper fumes. This act of cleaning the entire house is called the redding. Pieces from a rowan tree are placed above a door to bring luck, while inside is placed a piece of mistletoe, not for kissing under but as a charm against illness among the householders.

After the stroke of midnight, nothing can be taken from the house until something has been brought in. Old-fashioned folk will not give or lend anything on the first day of the year, not from miserliness but because they consider they would be handing away their good luck. Incidentally, all debts should be paid by New Year’s Eve because it’s considered bad luck to see in a new year with a debt.

Stay-at-home families gather round the fire which is well stoked to ensure a good blaze at midnight in order to bring good luck throughout the coming year. Towards midnight a hush falls, and the man of the house opens the front and back doors to let the old year out and the new one in. On the stroke of midnight the whole family makes a great noise, banging tin trays, blowing whistles and shouting to drive out any bad spirits that might be lurking within the rooms. In harbours, fishermen and sailors sound their horns and these sounds carry for miles, while bells ring across the country.

Now, only one person matters in Scotland at New Year: the first to cross the threshold after midnight — the first foot. These first visitors of the year bring all the luck, good or bad, which the household will encounter during the twelve months ahead. The first footer should be a tall dark man. This stems back as far as the 4th century when short, fair-haired Vikings raided Scotland — so it’s considered luckier to have the opposite type of person to visit. He or she should be honest, healthy, good tempered and liked by all — but not a doctor, minister or gravedigger. They must not carry any sharp objects, nor should they have a limp, stammer or any other physical handicap such as a deformed foot, blindness, deafness or eyebrows which meet in the middle. The most important rule for the first-footer is that he should not arrive empty-handed. He must carry symbolic gifts such as a lump of coal to signify warmth and comfort, cake or shortbread to denote plenty and a bottle, preferably of whisky, from which to pour a dram to toast the health of all who live in the house.

That merry day the year begins,

They bar the door on frosty win’s

The nappy reeks wi’ mantling ream,

An’ sheds a heart-inspiring steam;

The luntan pipe, an’ sneeshin mill,

Are handed round, wi’ right guid will;

The cantie, auld folks, crackan crouse,

The young ones rantan thro’ the house —

My heart has been sae fain to see them

That I for joy hae barket wi’ them.[3]

In older times, the first-footer might also bring a silver coin to ensure prosperity, or sometimes a pinch of salt. In some country areas, the first-footer brings a sheaf of corn and in Dundee he arrives with a beribboned red herring.

On arrival, without a word, the first-footer walks to the fire and places the coal on it, then pours a drink from his bottle and hands it to his host. ‘A guid new year to ane an’ a; and monie may ye see’ is the most common toast as the head of the house drains the glass. Then the host pours a dram for the first-foot and the fun can begin. The first-footer can claim a kiss from every woman in the house and more toasts and songs follow. By this time more revellers will have arrived and all will be given drinks and food — the traditional shortbread, cake and Black Bun, which is a very dense fruit cake encased in pastry.

Wi’ muckle glee, but little din,

At doors the lassies sentries keep,

To let the first-fit in.

Nae auld, camshauchled warlock loon,

Nor black, wanchancie carlin

Sall cross ae threshold o’ the toun

Till ilk lass gets her darlin’ person

To kiss that nicht.[4]

Once everyone is settled in the house, toasts are drunk in abundance!

May the best you’ve ever seen be the worst you’ll ever see.

May the moose ne’er lea’e your mealpoke wi’ a teardrop in its e’e.

May ye aye be hale and hearty till ye’re aul’ enough tae dee

May ye aye be just as happy as I wish ye aye tae be.[5]

A happy New Year! Grant that I

May bring no tear to any eye

When this New Year in time shall end

Let it be said I’ve played the friend,

Have lived and loved and labored here,

And made of it a happy year.[6]

At some point, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ will be sung (possibly it will be sung at several points!) with the whole company linking hands in a circle at the appropriate moment. Auld lang syne simply means ‘A long time ago’, but Scots find it a very special reminder of their roots, their homeland and their traditions. It’s one of the most popular songs in the world, published by Robert Burns in 1793 — yet it’s also been described as the song that nobody knows. Across the globe it’s instantly identified as a Scottish song, but people often get the words wrong, and very few New Year revellers really understand what it’s about! Originally a melancholic song, nowadays it is rendered with enormous enthusiasm. Do avoid singing “For the sake of auld lang syne” at the end of each verse — it’s just “For auld lang syne” — and whatever you do, don’t link hands until the last verse, at the words ‘And there’s a hand …’.

The great Hogmanay drink in the old days was Het Pint, a brew of ale mulled with nutmeg and whisky. This was carried, steaming hot, in a copper kettle and poured into cups that were offered to everybody the first-footer met on his travels. The Het Pint has vanished in favour of the whisky bottle but the name still survives in some parts of Scotland. Here is a recipe for authentic Het Pint from the 1826 cookery book, The Cook and Housewife’s Manual:

To make Het Pint, you’ll need: 4 pints (2.25 litres) of mild ale / 3 eggs / ½ A pint (275ml) Scotch whisky, a nutmeg and sugar to taste. Grate the nutmeg into two quarts of mild ale and bring it to the boiling point. Mix a little cold ale with sugar necessary to sweeten this, and three eggs, taking care that they do not curdle. Put in a half-pint of Scotch whisky and bring it once more nearly to the boil and then briskly pour it from one vessel into another till it becomes smooth and bright.

An old custom in the Highlands was to celebrate Hogmanay with the Saining (blessing) of the household and livestock. This was done early on New Year’s morning with copious, choking clouds of smoke from burning juniper branches. The house was sealed up tight and the burning juniper carried through the house and byre. Then all the doors and windows were flung open to let in the cold, fresh air of the new year.

On farms the year traditionally began with a visit to the stable and byre to give the animals an extra feed, like Robert Burns with his old mare, Maggie:

A Guid New Year I wish thee, Maggie!

Hae, there’s a ripp to thy auld baggie

Tho’ thou’s how-backit now, an knaggie,

I’ve seen the day

Thou could hae gaen like any staggie

Out-owre the lay.[7]

It stands to reason that over the centuries, with the constant to-ing and fro-ing across the North Channel, elements of the Scottish traditions of Hogmanay would reach across to eastern and northern parts of Ulster — nowhere more obviously than on Rathlin Island off the County Antrim coast.

The author and broadcaster, Sam Hanna Bell, recalled speaking to Mr Mick Craig of Carravindoon in his cottage on Rathlin Isand, about the ‘Hogmanay Meal’.

On New Year’s Eve, he said, all the young men of the island would gather up, and they had horns, and they blew through the horns together, and they had a bag with them, and they went right round from one home to another, you see, lifting meal for the poor of the island. They would go into a house and the people of the house threw coal on the floor and in went the first young man with a sheepskin on his back, and another man behind him had a hold of the sheepskin and a stick in his hand to batter it with, and they marched in a circle round the coal. Then the man at the back of the sheepskin cut a bit off it and gave it to the people of the house. And that bit of skin was put in the pot-crook at the hearth and kept there till the following New Year coming on — for to bring luck to the house.

Elsewhere in Ulster, ships’ horns were sounded after midnight on New Year’s Eve at Newry and Warrenpoint in south Down, and at Belfast.

Another Ulster Hogmanay custom was the giving of new year ‘wisps’. These plaited straw gifts symbolically bridged the midwinter threshold between the previous year’s harvest and the next year’s seed time.

By celebrating Hogmanay, we continue customs which have been handed down through countless generations. It doesn’t matter that these have changed: what does count is that the idea behind the custom should be carried on for generations to come — from old to new.

My pipe is out, my glass is dry;

My fire is almost ashes too;

But once again, before you go,

And I prepare to meet the New:

Old Year! a parting word that’s true,

For we’ve been comrades, you and I —

I thank God for each day of you;

There! bless you now! Old Year, good-bye![8]


[1] Robert W Service, ‘The Passing of the Year’

[2] Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘In Memoriam [Ring out, wild bells]’

[3] Robert Burns, ‘The Twa Dogs’

[4] Poems of the Reverend James Nichol, 1805

[5] Traditional

[6] ‘Poem’ by Edgar Guest

[7] Robert Burns, ‘The Auld Farmer’s New Year Morning Salutation’

[8] Robert W Service, ‘The Passing of the Year’



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