Hogmanay: How the Scottish Celebrate New Year

When most of the world is lighting fireworks and counting down the clock for the end of one year and the start of the next, Scotland is beginning its own holiday period: Hogmanay. From December 31st until January 2nd, the Scottish celebration of Hogmanay holds its own unique set of traditions.

Hogmanay customs

For many people, Hogmanay is all about the concerts and parties, but traditional Hogmanay celebrations include so much more such as taking care of and cleaning the home, as well as spending time with family and friends.

Cleaning the home

All of us are familiar with the idea of ‘Spring cleaning’. For Scottish households, this cleaning/cleansing takes three forms. In the Hogmanay tradition, families first tidy their houses before the end of the year, in the same way Jewish households do before Passover.

Part of the annual cleaning is clearing any outstanding debts before midnight on the 31st. This is one of the traditions that many consider to live on in folk memory rather than be observed in modern times, with mortgages and other significant loans having come into existence long after the first Hogmanay.

The third means of cleaning (or cleansing) is driving away evil spirits. This is done by burning a branch of juniper, like the burning of sage.

First guests and first footing

One of the most steadfast traditions of Hogmanay is first footing. Originating from the time of the Viking settlers, the tradition of first footing says that the first person to put their foot across your threshold should be a dark-haired man – instead of a blonde Viking. In keeping with this tradition, Scots celebrating Hogmanay visit their friends and family right after midnight to try to be the first to get their feet over the threshold.

Bonfires and fireworks

One of the better known and more widely maintained Hogmanay traditions is lighting bonfires and holding fireworks displays. As such displays are held all over the world to mark the new year, it’s no longer considered part of Hogmanay in many people’s eyes, but the fire at this time was originally used to ward off evil spirits.

Auld Lang Syne

A more modern tradition, which reflects the changing times in Scottish culture, is the singing of Auld Lang Syne during Hogmanay. Dating back to 1788, this poem by Robert Burns is sung to bid farewell to the old year.

Saining the house

One of the older and lesser kept traditions of Hogmanay is the saining of the house – the act of splashing holy water from a local stream around the house. The woman of the house then traditionally waves a burning juniper branch in each room. This is usually done until everyone in the house is wheezing or coughing – possibly why the tradition died out – at which point the windows are thrown open to let in the new year’s air.

To mark the occasion, and to help restore the people of the house, a bottle of whisky is brought out to share.

Traditional customs and marketing

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