Hogmanay and Other Celtic New Year’s Traditions
Updated: Jan 12, 2020
Hogmanay is Scotland’s biggest national holiday, far surpassing Christmas. This is because, for a period of about 400 years, most Scots didn’t celebrate Christmas. There are two reasons for that. One reason is that Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers took over British rule in the mid-17th century and, during that time, singing carols, feasting, and generally making merry during the Christmas season was prohibited in Great Britain. The British parliament went so far as to pass a law requiring shops to be open on December 25th (kill joys!). Additionally, starting in the mid-16th century, the Scottish Presbyterian Church (a major force in Scotland) sternly discouraged the celebration of Christmas, saying that the holiday was non-bible based and popish (i.e. Catholic. Heaven fer fen!). Christmas did not become a national holiday in Scotland until the 1950s. But the Scots, good Celts that they are, needed a reason to feast, sing, dance, and drink a dram or two during the drech (grey, icky) days of winter, so Hogmanay, the Scottish name for New Year’s, became the BIG DAY on the Scottish calendar.
And it still is. New Year’s Eve through Twelfth Night is filled with events and festivities all over Scotland. The biggest and most famous of these is in Edinburgh. Each year, on New Year’s Eve, up to 400,000 people (a Guinness Worldbook record) gather in the Scottish capital to march, holding torches, to Edinburgh Castle. At midnight, a spectacular fireworks display is set off from the castle ramparts. This is followed by music, dancing, and the drinking of a dram (or five) until the wee hours of the morning. Click here (https://youtu.be/dZyl6GHaCdE) to watch a video of the 2019 /2020 torch-lit parade with Scottish YouTubers Wee Scottish Lass and Shaun (aka Scotland to the World).
The etymology of the word Hogmanay is debated but I think the most reasonable origin of the word is the Scots Gaelic phrase og maidne which means young (or new) morning. The celebration itself has its roots in ancient Celtic fire festivals, especially Winter Solstice. Yes, I know that Winter Solstice is over in the Western Hemisphere before New Year’s, but celebrating it got delayed in Scotland. The Celtic pagan roots of Hogmanay are evident in how much fire is a part of the New Year’s celebration. In addition to Edinburgh’s torch-lit parade, huge bon fires are lit across Scotland. The biggest (and scariest) fire festivity takes place in Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. This is another parade, led by a piper. Behind him, the marchers twirl balls of fire above their heads. The origin of this dangerous activity has been identified as a pagan tradition to chase away evil spirits and to encourage, in the midst of winter, the return of the sun.
Scotland is not alone in its Celtic New Year’s traditions. Its Celtic neighbors, Ireland and Wales, share a few customs in common with Scotland, such as First Footing. In all three countries, First-Footing is a major part of folk traditions of New Year’s. First Footing has to do with the folk belief that the first person to step over the threshold on New Year’s is a sign of good luck or bad luck for the family in the year to come. The family hopes and prays (and usually arranges) for the first person to come into the house on New Year to be a tall, dark, (preferably handsome) man. This is orchestrated by inviting a neighbor’s son who fits the bill to come to the house at midnight. He will bring with him a gift of coal or bread to ensure (from a sympathetic magic perspective) that the family will have no shortage of fire or food in the New Year (plus, no Celt would be caught dead going to someone’s house empty handed!) A dark handsome male stepping over the threshold as the first foot of the New Year meant good luck for the New Year. A red-head or a woman meant bad luck. A red-headed woman being the first to come into the house on New Year’s practically guaranteed disaster. As a red-headed woman, I am highly offended by this. Actually, I’m not. The folk belief comes from the Viking raids of Celtic lands and the thought that a red-haired woman would surely be followed by a red-haired Viking man carrying an ax.
There are a few other traditions the three Celtic countries share to ring in the New Year. One is to clean the house thoroughly. This is both an out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new custom as well as begin-as you-mean-to-finish idea. After the cleaning, the woman of the house walks through every room carrying a smoldering herb (specifically holy thistle in Scotland) to purify the house of evil spirits. All three countries also believe all debts should be paid off so as to begin the New Year as a fresh start. A final shared tradition is for young, unmarried women to take the Christmas mistletoe, holly and / or ivy and place it under their pillows to dream of who they’ll marry.
In addition, Ireland and Wales have New Year’s traditions which are unique to them. Two of the Welsh traditions are Mari Lwyd and Calennig. Mari Lywd started in the Middle Ages. Groups of men would bring a horse’s head (mari lwed means “gray mare”) from house to house and challenge whoever opened the door to a verbal battle of insults and poems, all of which had to be delivered in Welsh. After the “battle” was over, the men would be invited into the house for some whiskey. By the 19th century, churches objected to the resulting drunkenness, so Christmas carols replaced the poems (although how this decreased the drunkenness is anyone’s guess). This custom, unfortunately, is dying out in Wales. Calennig takes place on New Year’s Day. Groups of children dip sticks of holly leaves in water and go from house to house in trick or treat fashion. When someone opens the door, the children sprinkle the person with water from the wet leaves. In return, the householder gives them a few coins or some sweets.
Perhaps Ireland’s strangest New Year’s tradition is bread beating. A bread is made especially for the occasion, then the members of the family beat the walls and doors of the house with it. This is supposed to chase away bad luck and invite good spirits into the house. A gentler and more recognizably Celtic tradition is the Honoring of the Dead. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that Celts invite those relatives who have passed on back home on Samhain which, on the Celtic calendar, is the start of the New Year. So it shouldn’t be surprising that at dinner, on New Year’s night by the Gregorian calendar, the Irish remember their deceased family members. This is done by setting a place at the table for them and leaving the front door unlocked to make it easier for the spirits to enter the house.
Of course, no New Year’s Eve would be complete without the singing of “Auld Lang Syne,” a song written by a Celt, Robert Burns. Scotland’s National Bard is so beloved that he has his own national holiday (Robbie Burns Day) coming up on January 25th. So, even though New Year’s Day has passed, on the 25th, sing the song again and raise a glass both to the poet and in thanksgiving that, as the Celts know, each new year is a fresh start. Slainte!
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Also, you might enjoy Wee Scottish Lass' YouTube video on Hogmanay. Here's a link to it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjTWA1fOR4g