Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy Hogmanay!

I want to wish everyone a Happy Hogmanay, and hope that 2006 was a better year than 2005!

For those of you not fortunate enough to be related to a Scot, Hogmanay is the Scottish New Year celebration. When the Reformation came to Scotland, Christmas was frowned upon as being too papist. The Puritans that colonized New England thought pretty much the same thing. This is one of the reasons I laugh at the whole "war on Christmas" thing, since for something like 400 years Presbyterians (and the last time I looked, Presbyterians were Christians) were quite happy to ban Christmas altogether.

Christmas celebrations started to pop up more often in Scotland as part of the Victorian re-discovery of Christmas, but it wasn't until the middle of the 20th century that Christmas became the main end of year festival. Until then, the festival was Hogmanay, and for many Scots it still is.

Hogmanay is sort of like New Years and Mardi Gras rolled into one (less the thrown beads and exposed breasts). It started out as a Druid or pagan celebration of the winter solstice, then it took on aspects of Rome's Saturnalia and the Viking Yule celebration. The Roman Catholic church was quick to associate winter solstice celebrations with Christmas, but when the Reformation started to throw out things "popish" they found it hard to eliminate Hogmanay. It's roots were deeper than Catholicism, and since they didn't have any direct religious connection the Presbyterians had little say in the matter.

Today Hogmanay is an excuse for a huge party. The celebrations have been known to run for a week or two. Every Scottish city holds its own Hogmanay festival, but Edinburgh and Glasgow are best known for their parties.

No one knows for sure where the word comes from. Some suggestions are:
  • From Gaelic: oge maiden, meaning "new morning"
  • From Celtic: hogunnus, meaning "new year"
  • From Flemish: hoog min dag, meaning "great love day"
  • From Old French: aguillanneuf, which was a gift given on the last day of the year
  • From Old English: haleg monaĆ¾, meaning "holy month"

A number of traditions and superstitions surround the holiday. The main tradition is the "first foot". Folklore says that the first person through your door on New Year's Day will indicate the type of year that will follow. The first person is the "first foot" and after midnight folk will often go "first footing" to their friends' house.

The best person to come through your door is a tall, dark stranger bearing gifts. The "stranger" part usually doesn't happen anymore, as friends visit friends. Being "dark" hails back to the days of the Vikings, as a fair-haired man walking in your door was more likely to be a pillager than a guest. Traditional gifts include food (parish priests would give food to the poor, and food offerings were part of pagan tradition), whiskey (it should be obvious why this was considered a good present) and coal (suggesting that the home would not run out of fuel through the cold winter). There was a time when it was considered bad luck if the "first foot" was flat-footed, cross-eyed, or had eyebrows that met (denoting the "evil eye"). People would go to great pains not to let such people in their homes as a "first foot", but this superstition is largely ignored today. (I say "largely", because Celts still tend to be a superstitious lot.)

Traditionally, "Auld Lang Syne" by Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759 – 96) is sung at New Year's. Many of my friends have had the following lecture before, so if you've heard this you can safely go web surfing elsewhere. First of all, Robert Burns is known in Scotland as "Rabbie Burns" not "Robbie Burns". In Scotland the diminutive of "Robert" is "Rab", not "Rob". This confuses people. (Apparently he wasn't called "Rabbie" while he was alive. He was most often called "Robert" or "Robin".) Second, the word "syne" is pronounced "sign" not "zyne". I have no idea why North Americans insist on pronouncing the word as though it has a "z" in it, but it's wrong! The word starts with an "s" and should be pronounced with an "s"!

Finally, when singing "Auld Lang Syne" typically only the first verse is sung. Most North Americans don't even realize there are other verses, or what they are. Here is a site with all of they lyrics, just in case you were wondering:

Once again, Happy Hogmanay!

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