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Monday, December 28, 2020

Ever heard of Hogmanay?  Well, it is Scotland's New Years celebration.  The celebrating runs longer and has many traditions that find their roots in ancient times.  They echo back to the Twelve Days of Christmas, where you held Christmas Eve, Christmas and Boxing Day, and celebrated through Twelfth Night.

My family kept Christmas Eve and Christmas Day for family only.  On Boxing Day, we would get out the sleighs (used to be more snow back then!) and go visiting.  We took gifts to neighbors and friends.  I thought this day more fun.  Riding in the old-fashioned sleighs, and being welcomed into homes for eggnog or warmed cider to shake off the chill, were such wonderful memories.  Sadly, the sleighs haven’t been used for years, as we see fewer and fewer White Christmases.  Also, the family has scattered and finds it harder to come together like we used to.

With the end of Christmas, the celebrations in America basically slow.  Decorations are taken down and stored for another year.  On the other side of the Pond, amazing Hogmanay parties in Scotland are just getting underway, and in some instances lasting over several days.

The Hogmanay name first showed in written records around the early 1600s, but many of the traditions come from a time much older.  Some suggest the name stems from be old Norman French of hoguinan (New Years gift).  Since the Auld Alliance saw France and Scotland sharing trade and cultures it seems reasonable.  A more likely explanation is it could be a variation of Scots Gaelic og maidne (young morning).  Still, the Flemish hoog min dag (great love day) might also be the source.  Whichever, it shows perhaps several cultures developed the holiday along the same lines, and that it wasn't just confined to Scotland.  One has no stronger provable claim to the name than another.
There are many celebrations or simple street festivals, but also you can discover the great, awe-inspiring fire-festivals—of interest to people who love history, but also eye-opening to those unfamiliar with the ancient traditions.  These festivals still practice rites and rituals that go back to Pagan times, maybe thousands of years.  It’s not hard to find concerts, parties, fireworks and balefires, as well offer a wide range of Scottish fare to satisfy your culinary tastes.

First Footing is one of the customs I always enjoyed.  It was considered very unlucky for a redheaded man or women to cross the threshold after the final stroke of midnight.  Not wanting to start the year off on the wrong foot, it was hoped a tall, black-haired, handsome man would arrive at the stroke of twelve.  This leads to a wee bit of mischief, such as picking a likely lad who fits the bill, handing him a bottle of Single Malt, and sticking him outside, to cross back over at the appointed time.  After all, who wouldn't want a tall, handsome, black-haired man to come a calling on the stroke of New Years?

Redding the House is a tradition of a “clean sweep”.  It is easy to understand where this one aims—sweeping the house clear of influence of the departing year, and giving you a fresh start.  You sweep out the house and clean the fireplaces.  Taking out the ashes can see the practice of a scrying skill of Reading the Ashes, foretelling the future much in the manner of reading tea leaves.  You are sweeping away all the negative influences that have held sway through the departing year.  Once that is done, all brooms and brushes are taken outside and burnt.  Keeping old ones invites the negative back in, so you start the year with new hair bushes, mops, small sweeps and brooms.  Once that is done, you use lavender, cedar and juniper branches to purify the house, dragging these over windows and doors to protect the house and seal it away from evil spirits.  Then, you burn them in the fireplace, the final step to purify the chimney.  Thus, you start the New Years all anew.

The bonfires and fire-festival are rooted in Pagan Pictish, Celtic or Norse origins.  As reflected in the burning of the lavender, cedar and juniper clearing the air of negative influences, these fire-festivals are a purifying of the land.  When the fires died and the ashes cooled, they were spread on farmland.  In truth, this potash a fertilizer that helps keep the land arable, promoting good root growth and higher crop production.  As with many ancient Pagan traditions, there is a rite, but also a logical purpose behind it.  A newer celebration, but gaining more and more attention worldwide—is Up Helly Aa in the Shetland Isles.  What an amazing festival!  There is nothing like it!  However, you can still find fire festivals at Stonehaven, Comrie and Biggar, and even Edinburgh has added this element in their Hogmanay celebrations.

Do you sing Auld Lang Syne at New Years without truly understanding the tradition is Scottish?  All over the world every year people sing Robert Burns’ version of the traditional Scottish Air In Edinburg’s Hogmanay, people join hands for what is reputed to be the world's biggest Auld Lang Syne singing.

Another odd tradition is the Saining of the House.  You find this mostly in rural areas, a tradition that involved blessing the house and livestock with holy water from a local stream.  After nearly dying out, you are seeing a revival in recent years.  Not surprising since Annis, the goddess of wells and streams is one of the oldest Pagan deities in Scotland.  You still see her Clootie Wells dotting the landscape, wells dedicated to her honor (where wishing wells come from).  After the house, land and stock are blessed, the females of the house, once more, perform a purifying ritual, of carrying burning juniper branches inside to fill the house with the cleansing smoke.  Notice, the commonality with the Redding the House?  Once the house was filled with smoke, driving out the evil influences, the windows were opened and whisky would be passed around.

These festivals grew in popularity after the banning of Christmas  in the 16th and 17th centuries. Under Oliver Cromwell, Parliament banned Christmas celebrations in 1647.  The ban was lifted after Cromwell's downfall in 1660.  However, in Scotland, the stricter Scottish Presbyterian Church had been discouraging Christmas celebrations  as having no basis in the Bible, from as early as 1583.  Thus, even after the Cromwellian ban was lifted elsewhere, Christmas festivities continued to be discouraged in Scotland.  In fact, Christmas remained a normal working day in Scotland until 1958 and Boxing Day did not become a National Holiday until much later.  Slowly, people began to go back to memories of olden days to find ways to make merry and celebrate.  Thus, Hogmanay became a mid-winter celebration to chase away the darkness and welcome the light.

Wishing you a blessed 2021, Peace on Earth and Good Will Toward All

Bliadhna Mhath Ùr

(Happy New Year!!!)

Deborah Macgillivray write Medieval Romances -- the Dragons of Challon-- and Pararmoral Contemporary Romances - The Sisters of Colford Hall.  Her works have been published worldwide and in many foreign translations.


  1. Wonderful blog! Thanks so much for sharing, Deborah!Adore the idea of the "great love day"!
    First footing is also a custom in Yorkshire, although a bit of a problem in my parents' as my dad was auburn haired. When I married my hubby he would first foot, since he was once dark-haired.

    1. My uncle has wavy black hair. They gave him a bottle of Highland Park or Edradour, pushed him outside to stand guard to make sure no of the redheads in the family cross the threshold. Then he "first-footed" at the stroke of midnight.

  2. What a joy to log in and find my own culture so appreciated. I do remember the scrupulous cleaning of the house, but I can't say I do that now. I also recall the doors and windows being thrown open to 'let in the New Year' as well as to hear the shouts from other homes and the boats blowing their whistles in the harbour. It was traditional for nobody to touch a drop of alcohol before 'the bells', and it is true that it went on for days. The first is a big family day, and another special meal is eaten. That's something I still do. My father was very dark, and considered handsome, so he was pushed over many a doorstep in the hope of good luck for the coming year. Nollaig Chridheil agus Bliadhna Mhath Ùr! Let's hope 2021 is better than 2020.

    1. Did you toss out all the brooms and brushes, too? It was considered, after the clean up, to throw them out to have a "clean sweep". I really someone going around taking our hair brushes!

    2. No, we didn't and I don't know anyone who did. Some of these will be regional as well as older ones too. My mother was VERY traditional, so we kept the holiday very much the same as she did as a child. Maybe the brush thing was another part of Scotland.

  3. This is just fascinating. I have heard of Hogmanay, but didn't know about all these traditions and really what the true meaning and purpose was. My family on both my mom's and my dad's sides had Scottish/Irish roots among others in the past, and I'm working on my ancestry slowly but surely--my dad was very proud of his Scottish heritage but didn't know much about it. He passed 13 years ago, before there was so much that could be found out on the computer, and so on--so I always think of him especially when I uncover a tidbit I think he would have loved to know. He would have been one to cross several doorsteps for First Footing, too--he also had quite a bit of Indian blood, as well, and was considered a handsome guy! My mom used to tease him about being "tall, dark, and handsome"--and he was. LOL

    Thanks for this very interesting blog, Deborah! I learned a lot from this.

  4. I love My father's side has been documented through ages of work by the family, maintaining it through the years. But my mother's side were more of a mystery. I knew heavily Scottish, with Irish, Norse and wee dram of Welsh. So I have been working on Ancestry. Over 10,000 people in the "tree" and some amazing ancestors. It's very relaxing and is sort of research for the Challons, too.

  5. I must have been a Scot in another life time because how else can I explain my life-long fascination and love of anything to do with Scotland, particularly the Highlands. Thank you for this informative blog, Deborah Wonderful traditions to uphold. Happy New Year to you amd may 2021 be the beginning of something better.

  6. Could well be. The thistle is the national flower for a reason. Thought the seeds spread easily, they root and those roots grow deep. "You can take the lass out of Scotland, but you can never take Scotland out of the lass".

    I found Candy Thompson, sister of Dawn Thompson and I have several intersects of our relatives. It was amazing to see both our lines connect.

  7. This is so interesting and informative!!! What a great blog!!! Deborah Macgillivray has a wealth of knowledge I really enjoyed reading this!!!

  8. So much that is wonderful about these festivals. Love them and love the history you shared. Thank you. Doris

  9. Glad you are enjoying them! I will be started a year long series about my ancestors, how to hunt through your own family tree, and give history a more personal view, starting the second weeks in January. Hope you will check back and check them out.

  10. Thank you so much for the informative and interesting post. I knew much of the information about Hogmanay, but it was nice to learn more and fill in some extra details. I hope you have a wonderful 2021.

    1. Happy New Year's to you. We all could use a better 2021

  11. There is plenty of celebratin' going on in Scotland in winter. God bless 'em! Sleigh rides to deliver presents and visit with friends and family sounds like great fun and so exhilarating. I especially like the idea of some welcoming eggnog on arrival.

    I like the practice of bonfires and whiskey. We could use some of that here in the States.

    Kinda weird having a tall, dark haired man roll through the door at midnight with a bottle of spirits in his hands. What's wrong with redheads?

    When you first mentioned Hogmanay, I imagined a roundup of pigs and a roasting to follow. Glad I was wrong about that.

    I love the practice of smudging the house and opening the windows to let out all the old vibes. A blessing is always a good thing to renew and refresh a home.

    Well, I have to say, this was not only an interesting blog, but an entertaining one as well. I might have to put into practice some of these traditions from Scotland in my home this coming year. Unfortunately, there is no way I'm going to get a sleigh ride here in the south.

    All the very best to you, Deborah, and happiness in the new year.