A firstfoot was to bring gifts to the house: an egg, a faggot of wood, a bit of salt — and a bit of whisky, thus insuring that the household would not lack for the necessities during the coming year.
(From The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon, chapter 35, “Hogmanay”)
Good sir, I bring you salt to salt your meat, and I bring you coal to keep your fire lit. From me and mine, to you an’ yours Happy New year, and lang may your lum reek!
— Traditional greeting of the firstfoot on Hogmanay
A big, torchlit party descended from Norse revels, and carried on in Scottish tradition with a ritual expression of neighborliness? Gotta love Hogmanay.
Hogmanay is the traditional December 31 celebration of the New Year. For centuries it was a bigger deal in Scotland than Christmas, as the Kirk banned Christmas as a popish affectation from the 17th Century. Christmas has only been a recognized holiday in Scotland since the 1950s.
So, ye can’t be havin’ pagan-adjacent revels over Christmas — but New Years? Aye, that’s another matter, isn’t it. Hogmanay (and pardon the understatement) meant nobody missed out on winter revels.
In fact, the Scots do winter revels better than anybody — to include gifting the whole world the song virtually everybody on the planet sings to mark the transition from the old to the new year.
From Historic UK:
It is believed that many of the traditional Hogmanay celebrations were originally brought to Scotland by the invading Vikings in the early 8th and 9th centuries. These Norsemen, or men from an even more northerly latitude than Scotland, paid particular attention to the arrival of the Winter Solstice or the shortest day, and fully intended to celebrate its passing with some serious partying.
In Shetland, where the Viking influence remains strongest, New Year is still called Yules, deriving from the Scandinavian word for the midwinter festival of Yule…
There are several traditions and superstitions that should be taken care of before midnight on the 31st December: these include cleaning the house and taking out the ashes from the fire, there is also the requirement to clear all your debts before “the bells” sound midnight, the underlying message being to clear out the remains of the old year, have a clean break and welcome in a young, New Year on a happy note.
Immediately after midnight it is traditional to sing Robert Burns‘ “Auld Lang Syne.” Burns published his version of this popular little ditty in 1788, although the tune was in print over 80 years before this.
“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.”
An integral part of the Hogmanay party, which is continued with equal enthusiasm today, is to welcome friends and strangers with warm hospitality and of course lots of enforced kissing for all.
“First footing” (or the “first foot” in the house after midnight) is still common across Scotland. To ensure good luck for the house the first foot should be a dark-haired male, and he should bring with him symbolic pieces of coal, shortbread, salt, black bun and a wee dram of whisky. The dark-haired male bit is believed to be a throwback to the Viking days, when a big blonde stranger arriving on your door step with a big axe meant big trouble, and probably not a very happy New Year!
This means that we can’t let son-in-law Jarod be the first foot over the threshold…
Break out the torches, carry out the ashes, salt the meat, raise a glass — and may your New Year dawn bright with promise.
Never heard of hogmanay but it sounds interesting.
I wonder how much Scottish culture is Norse instead of Celtic?
In the Western Isles, the Norse influence was significant. This is an excellent piece on the subject:
The Norse infused their culture into that of Scotland — but they were also Gaelicized and assimilated.
The Scots are the OGs of New Year celebrations in the West. The majority of the scant New Year traditions the US has are mostly from the Scots. This is also true of many places around the world where Scottish troops were once stationed. A little-known fact is that–for the first 30yrs or so–the US Congress WORKED THROUGH CHRISTMAS but took NY off. This was due to Scottish influence.
I’ve studied Hogmanay quite a bit over the last 15-20 years. I’ve not stumbled upon much at all to indicate any ‘Viking’ influence. What would pagan Vikings introduce? New Year’s on Jan.1 is ultimately a product of Rome and the Church. Scandinavian NY customs, if anything, resemble bland versions of the Scottish. Being 500yrs behind the Scots in adopting Catholicism, New Year’s would be even MORE alien to the Scands.
The thing to keep in mind is the ORIGINAL New Year celebration in Scotland/Alba: Samhain/Halloween. In other parts of Britain, we can see where ancient Halloween customs were slowly moved to Christmas. There was probably much the same process in Scotland, but the Covenanters burned so much we know only scraps of medieval Scottish Christmas customs. We DO know that Christmas was wildly celebrated in Scotland (the ‘Daft Days’) until the Covenanter regime outlawed it.
We didn’t clean out any ashes at our house but we did go outside to light sparklers, and salty meat and whisk(e)y were consumed at our family New Year’s celebration. To paraphrase another departed bard, 3 out of 4 ain’t bad!
I hope 2023 is a blessed one for you and everyone else around the campfire!
Thank you Padre. Same to all of you…