Hogmanay (Dec. 31 - Jan. 2):
People from temperate climates around the world have been celebrating the winter solstice since Biblical times. In times when daily life was dictated by circadian rhythm and the changing of the seasons, the passing of the longest night of the year heralded the return of the sun and new life to the world. Although the ancient Celtic tribes had their own rites and customs for celebrating the winter solstice, New Year's festivities in Scotland owe their greatest influence to the Roman festival of Saturnalia and the Viking Yule celebration. During the Middle Ages, Christmas feasts began to overshadow these pagan festivals. The Kirk of Scotland, however, discouraged the celebration of Christmas on the grounds that it was a Popish holiday (until the 1960s, Christmas was a working day in Scotland). The gift-giving and revelry of the winter solstice feast day was therefore moved to New Year, giving rise to the uniquely Scottish Hogmanay festival. (Only in the past three decades has Christmas begun to rival Hogmanay as Scotland's premier winter celebration.)
The word Hogmanay has uncertain origins; it may have entered the Scots language from the French hoguinané (a New Year's gift), or home est né (man is born), or it may have come from the Gaelic og maiden (new morning). The word may also have originated with the Flemish hoog min dag (day of great love) or the Anglo-Saxon haleg monath (holy month). Whatever its origin, the term Hogmanay was current parlance by 1604, when it first appeared in the written record.
Scottish families celebrate Hogmanay with a host of customs and traditions to ensure luck and prosperity for the coming year. Households are bedecked with symbolic greenery: rowan branches hang over their doorways as lucky talismans; sprigs of mistletoe ward off illness; holly keeps out mischievous fairies; and yew offers protection from harm. At midnight on New Year's Eve, the head of the household would customarily fling open the back door to usher out the old year, and open the front door to welcome in the new.
The most widespread national custom is the practice of "first-footing" which starts immediately after midnight. A first-footer is the first person to cross the threshold of a friend's or neighbour's house, and is said to set the course of luck for the household for the rest of the year. The first-footer should be a tall male with a dark complexion, as red-heads are considered ill omens. This belief is an echo from the time when the appearance of a fair-haired stranger on the doorstep was unlucky indeed, as it meant a Viking raid. First-footers also brought symbolic gifts such as salt for prosperity, coal for warmth, and black buns for no hunger. In fishing communities along the east coast, first-footers used to bring decorated herrings with them.
Various local traditions also hark back to ancient times. Fire, also a key element in Celtic New Year festivals, symbolized the return of the life-bringing sun and was believed to ward off the evil spirits that dwelled in darkness. Fire rituals are to this day important parts of Hogmanay celebrations, which include torchlight processions, bonfires, and fireworks shows.
One of Scotland's most unique fire rituals takes place in Stonehaven, a small town 16 kilometers south of Aberdeen in Kincardinshire. Every year thousands of visitors flock to Stonehaven to attend its famous fireball ceremony. In pagan times, fireballs represented the sun in miniature, and were believed to consume evil spirits and thus purify the world. This ritual also mimics a time during the Early Middle Ages when a shooting star appeared over the village. Coincidentally, the residents enjoyed bumper crops shortly thereafter, and the tribe's seers attributed the prosperity to the shooting star. Today, Stonehaven locals make giant fireballs by filling mesh wire cages with old newspaper, dry twigs, paraffin-soaked rags, and other dry flammable materials, and attach them to chains or poles (experts can wield fireballs weighing as much as 10 kilos). As the Old Town House bells ring in the New Year on midnight, celebrants march in a procession up the High Street from the Mercat Cross to the Cannon and back, swinging giant fireballs above their heads. Any fireballs that are still burning at the end of the ceremony are cast into the harbour.
The people of Burghead, Moray, enjoy another unique ancient fire ritual known as the Burning of the Clavie. The "clavie" is a half barrel filled with wood shavings and tar nailed onto a carrying post which is hoisted onto the shoulders of a local villager. The clavie is then lit by a peat from the hearth of the home of an old Burghead Provost, and ten men (traditionally fishermen) take turns carrying it around the village streets, eventually coming to the stone altar of the old fort on Doorie Hill. The men set the clavier down on the altar and add more fuel until the entire hillside is ablaze with a beacon of fire. Onlookers snatch up the dying embers to kindle their own fireplaces at home, to keep them as lucky talismans, or to send to loved ones who have moved out of Burghead.
Other ancient Hogmanay customs included running around the village dressed up in the hides of cattle, lighting bonfires, rolling blazing tar barrels down the hill, and tossing torches. Animal hide was also wrapped around sticks and set ablaze, producing a smoke that was believed to be very effective in warding off evil spirits. (This smoking stick was also known as a Hogmanay.) Some of these customs have continued into the present day, especially in the small, older communities of the Highlands and Isles, where old traditions remain vibrant. On the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, for example, young boys don sheep skins and go from house to house for treats of black buns and shortbread. "Rise up, guid wife, an' shake your feathers," they say at the door, "dinna think that we are beggars! We are bairns come out to play, get up and gie's our Hogmanay!"
Another old custom in the Highlands, which has survived to a small extent and seen some degree of revival, is to celebrate Hogmanay with the saining (Scots for protecting or blessing) of the household and livestock. The head of the household would lead this ritual early on New Year's morning, waving a burning cluster of juniper branched as he sprinkled "magic water" from "a dead and living ford" - a river ford which both the living and the dead routinely cross - across the house. After water had been sprinkled in every room, on all the beds, and on all the inhabitants, the house was sealed up tight and the burning juniper was carried through the house to fumigate it. Then all the doors and windows were flung open to let in the cold, fresh air of the New Year. The woman of the house then administered "a restorative" from the whisky bottle before the family sat down to breakfast.
Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebration has evolved into a gigantic four-day long party marked by dancing in the streets, open-air concerts, street theatre troupes, fireworks displays, and plenty of alcohol. But even seemingly modern festivities contain remnants of the ancient past: the Viking galley ship that is put to the torch on Canton Hill recollects a more dangerous era of invasions and warfare, while the bonfires that blaze all over the country light the sky with the distant legacy of the ancient Celts. And, of course, Scotland can't leave the Bard out of its merriment: the singing of "Auld Lang Syne" at the stroke of midnight is a relatively recent custom that has spread from Scotland to the whole of the English-speaking world. Even if our pronunciation might make a Scotsman cringe, he would surely appreciate the sentiment.