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What is Hogmanay?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 22 August 2016
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Hogmanay is the traditional Scottish name for the celebration that occurs on New Year’s Eve. Many American traditions derive from Hogmanay, which has been celebrated for centuries, and derives from Gaelic, Roman and perhaps Viking influence. Scots, pre-Roman Empire celebrated a winter festival that worshiped both fire and sun. Roman influence brought the celebration of Saturnalia to Scotland, a raucous winter festival. Lastly, Vikings contributed their beliefs on Yule, which later became associated with Christmas celebrations.

All of these sources, and of course Christian beliefs added to the mix result in the varied celebrations and traditions that occur on Hogmanay. In the past few decades, the celebration of the holiday has gotten increasingly larger and grander, with huge Hogmanay events held in some of the major Scottish cities, and many smaller ones held in small towns. Americans derive the tradition of singing “Auld Lang Syne,” after the New Year has begun on the stroke of midnight, from the Scots.

At certain points in history, Hogmanay was celebrated more like Christmas, since festivals with lots of drinking and revelry were discouraged as counter to the religious qualities of Christmas. In many ways, those early Hogmanay celebrations were similar to Christmas as it is now celebrated, with visiting of neighbors, giving gifts, especially to children, and a great deal of partying. Today in Scotland, Christmas and New Years Eve each get their own celebration.

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One tradition that reaches far into the past to the Celtic or Gaelic traditions is the use of fire in Hogmanay celebrations. People may carry lit torches, and large bonfires are built. This ritual use of fire can be associated with the idea of the dying or burning of the past, and represents a cleansing of sorts.

Another tradition right after midnight has struck is first footing. Neighbors and friends go out to visit other neighbors, and they are the first “foot” that steps into the house in the New Year. It is considered important, though perhaps not as seriously in the past, for the person to have dark hair, so that that person is not associated with Vikings. The first footer is given food and drink: typically black bun, a sticky raisin pastry, and tea or stronger libations. Since there are plenty of light and dark haired folks in Scotland, the first footer may have the opposite hair color of the residents of the house.

You will sometimes hear Hogmanay referred to as Cake Day. This references the practice of children going door to door during its celebration, and receiving treats like black bun for doing so. This is less often done in present time, but it used to be a tradition similar to Halloween.

As with many Americanized practices of New Year’s Day, the New Year begins with not only practices like first footing, but also singing, and plenty of hugging and kissing. It’s a joyous holiday, with increasing emphasis on providing large festival venues where huge numbers of people can gather to bid goodbye to the passing year and welcome in the New Year.

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