originally published January 2, 2014
“Why,” you may ask yourself, should you feel so bold as to question my methods yet too timid to address me directly, “is this guy still writing about the holidays? We’ve moved on; our page-a-day Funky Winkerbean calendar has already shed a square of scrap into the recycle pile. Why isn’t he keeping up?”
Two things. First off, while you may have lifted the carpet of your cerebral fluid and brushed yesterday morning’s hangover underneath, the world is not done celebrating. For some folks, the party doesn’t end until today. I’m not talking about the unemployed binge-NYE’ers with enough liver mass and brain cells to spare that they can carve off the first chunk of the year like a moldy section on a firm wedge of aged cheese; I’m referring to the Scottish tradition of Hogmanay. And yes, I’m aware the two groups of celebrants are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
And secondly, Funky Winkerbean? Seriously? Do they actually make calendars out of that comic strip?
It’s not a typo – Hogmanay is a celebration that kicks off on New Year’s Eve and stretches as far as January 2nd every year in Scotland. This tradition stretches way back beyond the Twelve Days of Christmas to the Viking party known as Yule, the Gaelic fiesta called Samhain and the Norse holiday that coincided with the winter solstice. Once the heat had died down after the Protestant Reformation in the late 17th century, Hogmanay resurfaced. From what I’ve learned about Hogmanay, it is the party for New Year’s Eve. The Irish may have locked down the party bragging rights in March, but the New Year belongs to the Scots.
Celebrations vary somewhat around the country, and I’m sure they have morphed into their own incarnations in Scottish communities in North America. Food and drink naturally play a part in the festivities, but the most important tradition in Hogmanay lore is that of ‘first-footing’.
Right after midnight, once the New Year has splashed down in its glitzy sequined jumpsuit, the first-footing begins. This is when people welcome their first guest across their threshold, often with gifts of coal, shortbread, salt and whisky trading hands. These gifts and this symbolic first-footing are meant to bring good luck to the household, in particular if that first foot belongs to a tall, dark man. I’m not sure why that is, but I suppose if you fit that description and you’ve stocked up on shortbread you can make a lot of people really happy after midnight on New Year’s.
In the east coast fishing communities and Dundee, the first-footers brought with them a decorated herring. In Falkland, men marched in a torchlight procession as midnight approached. The Scots need some hardcore endurance for this party, as the first-footing celebrations involve a lot of door-to-door party-hopping as the 31st bleeds its night into the first sunrise of the year.
Then there’s the cake. Can’t forget the cake.
It just ain’t Hogmanay until someone cuts you a slice of black bun. If you thought our western-style fruitcake was horrendous and inedible (and maybe you don’t think that, but a lot of people do and quite often they’re right), check this out. The black bun is a mix of raisins, almonds, currants, citrus peel, allspice, ginger, cinnamon and black pepper, rolled up and baked inside a pastry shell. I don’t know, it might be delicious. It’s meant to be served with whisky so maybe it doesn’t really matter how it tastes.
Hogmanay also features fireworks, as does every celebration worth honoring. Street drumming, bagpiping, bells, singing and music all factor into the party. Blessings take place, in particular in the Highlands, where they sprinkle some magic water around the house, in every room and on every resident. Then the house is sealed up and branches of juniper are lit and carried through every room until the residents are sneezing and coughing from the smoke. After that, the doors and windows are flung open, and everyone celebrates with some breakfast whisky.
This is why I love being part Scottish. Breakfast friggin’ whisky.
Oh, and fireballs. Big fucking fireballs.
In Stonehaven, the party includes a procession through the streets with local folks swinging around 2-foot balls of chicken wire, filled with newspaper, sticks and rags that have been lit ablaze. Check it out, starting at around the 2-minute mark of this video. Here’s a society that feels pretty damn secure in its tendencies not to take one another to court. At the end of the march, everyone tosses their fireballs into the harbor in time for the fireworks show. Your culture may have some great New Year’s traditions, but until they include flinging fireballs drunkenly around one’s head, I’m not interested.
“Auld Lang Syne” is naturally a part of Hogmanay, given that it was penned by Robert Burns, who is like the Elvis Presley of Scottish culture. In Scotland, it’s not enough to sing the song, but when the last verse hits (and yes, there are several verses), people gather in a circle, link arms and blast the lyrics together in unison. Yes, whisky is a part of this too.
But the real beauty of Hogmanay is found in its duration. Christmas is still a holy day, but has only been a public holiday in Scotland since 1958; prior to that, the Presbyterian national church discouraged any elaborate celebration of Christmas. But Hogmanay remained in the spotlight, and is still just as important to the Scots as the Yuletide rigmarole. People continue to visit one another with gifts and greetings (and probably more whisky) for days after the big ball has dropped in Times Square.
When New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday, the Monday and Tuesday are public holidays. Same if it falls on a Saturday. This is a guaranteed four-day weekend surrounding New Year’s. For many of us poor schlubs in Canada, we’re already expected back at work the day after beating our hangover into submission. It just ain’t fair.
Hogmanay is a holiday done right by a culture that knows how to crank the party dial to a hearty maximum. When 1996 gave way to ’97, the festivities in Edinburgh were locked into the annals of the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest New Year’s party in history, with a Woodstock-esque 400,000 revelers in attendance.
Should the fates choose to sprinkle a lottery win on me this year, I’ll be welcoming in the first few mornings of 2015 on a wild Scottish vacation.
And you can be damn sure I won’t forget the whisky.