The history behind both the celebration of and the name Hogmanay is up for debate. However, many feel that the celebration is carried on from Norse traditions which celebrated the arrival of the Winter Solstice. The fact that this coincides with New Years Eve came about with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in the fall of 1752.
Hogmanay is steeped in tradition and ritual. Many Scots will take the time during the day on December 31 to clean the house and pay off all debts prior to the “ringing of the bells” at midnight. This ritual was known as redding (getting ready for the New Year). The reason for this was to clear out the remnants of the old year and welcome in a young, New Year with a clean slate.
A few branches of the Rowan tree would be put above the door to bring luck. Inside was mistletoe to prevent illness to those who lived within. Pieces of holly placed around the house were thought to keep out mischievous fairies. And finally, pieces of hazel were gathered and placed around the home to protect the house and all who lived in it. Then all the doors of the home would be opened to bring in fresh air. Once this final piece of the ritual was completed, the house was then considered to be ready for the New Year.
Immediately after midnight, it is traditional to sing "For Auld Lang Syne", in a circle of friends whose linked arms are crossed over one another as the clock strikes midnight for New Year's Day:
"Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot and auld lang syne
For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne,
We'll take a cup o kindness yet, for auld lang syne."
Which translates to:
“Should old acquaintances be forgotten
And never be remembered?
Should old acquaintances be forgotten
and days long ago”.
Perhaps the most important and revered Hogmanay custom is the practice of 'first-footing' which dates back to the Viking days. This involves the first person to cross the threshold once the New Year bells have been rung. Superstition states that the “first footer” should be a tall male with dark hair. The darker the man's complexion the better, since no one wanted a Viking (raider) turning up on their doorstep - that could only mean trouble! A dark complected man represented luck for the rest of the year. In addition, the first-footer needs to enter the home carrying salt, coal, a coin, shortbread, whisky, and black bun. These gifts represent goodness and abundance for the New Year. The Coal for heat/warmth, the coin for financial prosperity, salt for flavour, shortbread for food and whiskey for good cheer. These gifts are then to be shared with the other guests so that the wishes for a good and prosperous year can then be spread around.
The gift of black bun (a rich fruit cake) harks back to the 1800s with the celebration of a winter festival called Up Helly Aa. Although Up Helly Aa is a festival of fire, and is still of prime importance in Shetland, the tradition of the fruit cake stems from the custom that the person getting the piece of fruit cake containing either a pea or a bean would then become the king or queen of the Up Helly Aa festivities.
Many of the current traditions still taking place in
to this day are centered around fire, and are a throw back to the fire
festivals. In addition to Shetland’s Up Helly Aa, Edinburgh hosts a fire torch
procession through the town from St Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile, through
the town and on up to Calton Hill. And in Stonehaven there is the
fireball-swinging where giant fireballs made from rags doused in paraffin,
swung on poles are paraded through the town's streets. These fire festivals
date back to pre-Christian customs linked to the Winter Solstice and the
fireballs signify the power of the sun to purify the world by consuming evil
The traditions live on even today. The gifts are still presented by the first footers, although not necessarily to the extent that they once were. But most of all, the new year is rung in with a good old-fashioned Scots welcome and hospitality. And each and every one is wished
“A guid New Year to ane an` a` and mony may ye see!”