Imagine Christmas being cancelled? As we all face lockdown restrictions, we can easily imagine how the Scots felt in 1580 when John Knox banned the celebration of Christmas.
Except that his ban lasted 400 years.
Knox led the Presbyterian movement during the Reformation when Scotland officially split from the Roman Catholic Church. He saw Christmas as a Roman Catholic celebration and wanted none of it. Parliament backed him. In 1640, an Act of the Parliament of Scotland abolished the “Yule vacation and observation thereof in time coming.”1 Christmas Day only became a public holiday in 1958. It took almost two decades more to get Boxing Day, which happened in 1974.2
The celebration of Hogmanay, or the coming of the new year, took on a greater significance.
There are a few theories about the origin of the word Hogmanay. The Scandinavian word for the feast preceding Yule was Hoggonott. The Flemish words hoog min dag mean great love day. Some believe that the origin of the word Hogmanay can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon Haleg monath or Holy Month or the Gaelic words for new morning, oge maidne. Many believe that the source is French, homme est né for man is born. In France, the last day of the year when gifts were exchanged, was called aguillaneuf and in Normandy, this was called hoguignetes.3
My father, Edward McHugh, was usually the “first-footer.” He stepped across the threshold after midnight, bearing gifts. Traditionally, to ensure good luck, the first-footer is a tall and dark-haired male. No one wanted to welcome a fair-haired first-footer, as they were associated with the Viking invasions.4 My father brought gifts of coal and a herring, but some of the other traditional gifts include shortbread, a black bun, and whiskey to toast the new year.5
My Scots grandmother also traditionally cleaned her home from top to bottom, literally sweeping out the old. And if anyone in the family had any outstanding debts, they had to be paid by midnight.
Saining is the practice of blessing your house and livestock for the New Year. Anyone can bless their house, as long as they use magical water from a river that has been crossed by both the living and dead. And you will have to find some juniper bushes to burn throughout your house.6
At Hogmanay parties hundreds of years ago, bonfires would be lighted and tar barrels would be rolled downhill. These fire ceremonies represented rebirth and new beginnings. Sometimes animal hides were wrapped around sticks and lit on fire. It was thought that the smoke would ward off evil spirits. 7
Every year Edinburgh hosts its Torchlight Procession to recreate the fire ceremonies. This year, it will be on-line so we can all enjoy the celebrations.8
Edinburgh’s Torchlight Procession, 20189
Of course, it would not be a party without ceiladh dancing in Scotland. The word ceilidh means simply ‘gathering’ or ‘party.’ So essentially, it is a gathering that features music and dancing. 10
Ceiladh dancing at Edinburgh Torchlight Procession 11
The partying and hospitality that goes on at Hogmanay is a way of wishing family, friends, and strangers a Guid New Year.
I wish you all a very Guid New Year.
- Scot Clans website, A History of Christmas in Scotland, December 17, 2013, https://www.scotclans.com/a-history-of-christmas-in-scotland/ttp://www.scotland.org/features/hogmanay-top-facts, accessed December 21, 2020.
- Rampants Scotland website, Did you know? New Year’s Eve – Hogmanay, http://www.rampantscotland.com/know/blknow12.htm, accessed December 21, 2020.
- https://www.edinburghshogmanay.com/explore/view/a-guide-to-hogmanay-traditions, accessed December 21, 2020.
- Edinburgh’s Hogmanay web site, A Guide to Hogmanay Traditions, https://www.edinburghshogmanay.com/whats-on/edinburghs-hogmanay-goes-online-and-on-screens-for-2020, accessed December 21, 2020.
- BBC News, Edinburgh’s Torchlight Procession Recreates Scotland’s Map, Brown, Angie, December 31, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-46721188, accessed December 21, 2020.
- Edinburgh’s Hogmanay web site, A Guide to Hogmanay Traditions, https://www.edinburghshogmanay.com/explore/view/a-guide-to-hogmanay-traditions, accessed December 20, 2020