What to do for Hogmanay?

Traditions | 21 December 2020

It’s difficult this year to write in upbeat tones about fun things to do on a New Year’s Break in Scotland as - you guessed it - sadly most of the world-famous outdoor celebrations have been cancelled. We cross our fingers and toes hoping that extra caution this winter will make next year’s Hogmanay getaways possible, but for now nothing is stopping us from explaining why New Year’s Eve is so important in Scotland and what are the most known Scottish Hogmanay traditions.

Why is Hogmanay so important to the Scots?

End of year celebrations – connected with the passing of the seasons and hope of renewal brought by coming longer days and warmer months – are almost universal around the globe. In the majority of Western countries, the ancient rituals and beliefs of the turn of the year merged with Christian teachings and calendar, with the story of Nativity seamlessly incorporating the message of new life and positive change in the world. 

This pattern was followed Christian Scotland, where Celtic, Pictish, British and Norse traditions were gradually turned into Catholic celebrations, but for Christmas things took a different turn in the 16th c. with the calls for the reform of the church and emergence of the Presbyterian protestantism. The new devout religious movement aimed to base its practices wholly on the teachings of the Bible, and as it never mentioned Christmas celebrations, the church started discouraging from feasting on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day from 1580s. A similar ban was introduced in England in 1647 by radical protestant Oliver Cromwell, and although it was reversed after his death in 1660, Scottish Presbyterians stuck in their resolve and continued to downplay the importance of Christmas. 

Despite the fact that Scotland always had a Catholic minority, Christmas remained a normal working day in Scotland until 1958 and Boxing Day did not become a National Holiday until much later. This doesn’t mean that the traditions of exchanging gifts, seeing your family and friends, and wishing well for the coming year died out – they simply attached themselves to the next significant date in the calendar – that of the New Year’s Eve. The origins of its Scottish name are still disputed by linguists, but there’s no doubt that in the absence of proper Christmas festivities, Hogmanay became a major Scottish holiday.

Scottish Hogmanay traditions

There is a certain image that works like a magnet on many visitors coming for a New Year’s Break in Scotland: that of a torch-bearing crowd walking the streets of wintery Edinburgh. All forms of fire (hand-held, communal bonfires or fireworks in the sky) seem to strike a chord with Hogmanay revellers and it will come as no surprise that this connection dates back millennia before the arrival of Christianity. On windswept hilltops the light of a bonfires was supposed to chase away the long nights of winter and it’s warmth plant hope for warmer spring days in the hearts of the faithful. Many Hogmanay celebrations in smaller Scottish towns like Biggar, Comrie or Stonehaven are centred around bonfires, but it’s the Edinburgh fire celebrations that tempt thousands of visitors from around the world. And no wonder: the torch-lit procession coupled by live music and spectacular Christmas Market in Princess Street Gardens can rival any other outdoor New Year’s Eve celebration in the world. Hopefully the Scottish capital will be able to welcome revellers to usher New Year 2022!

The Hogmanay fires were also believed to have cleansing powers. A flaming branch (preferably juniper) was lit from the bonfire and brought home. Walking around all the rooms with the smoking branch was supposed to keep evil at bay and bring good luck. Another way to get the new year started the right way: a proper clean-up! Known in Scotland as “Redding the House”, it was a way of dispensing with old and making space for the new. In some parts of Scotland the swept-out fireplaces would be lit with the bonfire branch and old ashes used for fortune telling. The “getting-things-done” attitude extended to any financial mess in the life of the family: traditionally all debts would be settled before Hogmanay midnight, as owing someone in New Year was considered bad luck. 

Now, your home is sparkling clean, a magical fire is crackling in the fireplace and you’re happily debt-free. What could make Hogmanay night any better? Gift-bearing guests of course! One of the longest surviving Scottish Hogmanay traditions is first-footing: visiting your friends and neighbours after midnight. It was believed that the first person in through the threshold – of the door and New Year – could bring luck (if it’s a tall dark-haired man) or bad tidings (if it’s a red-haired woman). The guest would also bring symbolic gifts like a lump of coal or a piece of Black Bun and the host would welcome them with a wee dram of whisky. If you want to educate your neighbours about first-footing (and get some golden spirit in the process), you can have a go at the traditional Scottish fruit cake with this recipe from Great British Bake-Off’s Paul Hollywood.

If you don’t have Scottish neighbours – or feel it’s safer not to visit other households just now – you can always sing the Auld Lang Syne – the New Year’s Eve anthem by Scottish National Bard Rabbie Burns. No one’s exactly sure how it became the song to sing after the midnight kiss, but until Hogmanay getaways become safe again it gives you a chance to celebrate the coming of 2021 with a Scottish flare. Happy New Year!