A Real Scottish New Year's
January 1st and 2nd are Scottish holidays, however Scotland has two fewer public holidays than England throughout the rest of the year to make up for it.
Hogmanay is the Scots word for the last day of the year and is synonymous with the celebration of the New Year in the Scottish manner. Its official date is December 31. However this is normally only the start of a celebration which lasts through the night until the morning of 1 January or, in many cases, 2 January.
The roots of Hogmanay reach back to the pagan celebration of the winter solstice. The Vikings celebrated Yule, which later became the Twelve Days of Christmas, or the “Daft Days” as they were sometimes called in Scotland. The winter festival went underground with the Protestant Reformation but re-emerged near the end of the 17th century.
The etymology of the word is obscure. Suggestions include:
Scottish Gaelic h’ og maidne “new morning”
Gaelic expression "theacht mean oiche" ("the arrival of midnight", pronounced "heacht meawn eehe")
Gaelic ocht mean oiche “eighth midnight” (from Christmas)
Old English haleg mona? “Holy Month”
However none of these is more than guesswork.
The most widespread national custom is the practice of first-footing which starts immediately after midnight. This involves being the first person to cross the threshold of a friend or neighbour and often involves the giving of symbolic gifts such as salt, coal, shortbread, whisky, and black bun (a fruit pudding) intended to bring different kinds of luck to the householder. Food and drink are then given to the guests. This may go on throughout the early hours of the morning and well into the next day.
The first-foot is supposed to set the luck for the rest of the year, so it is important that a suitable person does the job. A tall, handsome, and dark-haired man bearing a gift is strongly preferred. According to popular folklore, a dark-haired man was welcomed because he was probably a fellow Scotsman; a blonde or red haired stranger might be an unwelcome Norseman.
An example of a local Hogmanay custom is the fireball swinging which takes place in Stonehaven, Kincardineshire in northeast Scotland. This involves local people making up balls of chicken wire, tar, paper and other flammable material to a diameter of about a metre. Each ball has wire, chain or non-flammable rope attached. A swinger swings the ball round and round their head and body by the rope while walking through the streets of Stonehaven. At the end of the ceremony any fireballs which are still burning are cast into the harbour. This display is more impressive in the dark and, as a result, large crowds flock to the town to see it.
The Hogmanay custom of singing “Auld Lang Syne” (a traditional poem reinterpreted by Robert Burns which was later set to music), has become common in many countries.
The Presbyterian Church generally disapproved of Hogmanay. One of the first mentions of the holiday in official church records says: “It is ordinary among some plebeians in the South of Scotland to go about from door to door upon New-years Eve, crying Hagmane.” 1692.
Until the 1960s, Hogmanay and Ne’erday in Scotland took the place of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Although Christmas Day held its normal religious nature, the Church of Scotland had discouraged its celebration for over 300 years. As a result Christmas Day was a normal working day in Scotland until the 1960s and even into the 1970s in some areas. The gift-giving, public holidays and feasting associated with mid-winter were held between 31 December and 2 January rather than between 24 December and 26 December.
With the fading of the Church’s influence and the introduction of English cultural values, the transition to Christmas feasting was complete by the 1980s. However, 1 January and 2 January remain public holidays in Scotland, despite the addition of Christmas Day and Boxing Day, and Hogmanay still is associated with as much celebration as Christmas in Scotland.
Ne’erday (a contraction of “New Year’s Day” in Scots dialect)
When Ne’erday falls on a Sunday, 3 January becomes an additional public holiday in Scotland; when Ne’erday falls on a Saturday, both 3 January and 4 January will be public holidays in Scotland.
The four largest Scottish cities, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee, hold all-night celebrations, as does Stirling. The Edinburgh Hogmanay celebrations are among the largest in the world. Most Scots still celebrate Ne’erday with a special dinner, usually steak pie.
Historically presents were given in Scotland on the first Monday of the New Year. Often the employer would give his staff presents and parents would give children presents. A roast dinner would be eaten to celebrate the festival. “Handsel” was a word for gift box and hence Handsel Day. In modern Scotland this practice has died out.