Hogmanay: What to do when you can’t celebrate Christmas

Quick, before it ends, let’s talk about Hogmanay.

Let’s talk about what? Why Hogmanay, of course, a holiday I never heard of before I moved to Britain. It’s celebrated in the farthest end of Britain from where I live–Scotland, and I’m in Cornwall–and runs from New Year’s Eve through the first of January. January second is an official holiday in Scotland, even though they have to pay for it by giving up one of the other national holidays.

It is–or so I’ve read–a Celtic / Norse fusion that happened when the Norse invaders’ solstice celebrations crashed into the Celtic Samhain traditions, which marked the start of winter. The result later crashed into Christianity and became Christianized. It was called daft days. People ate, drank (probably a lot, given the name), lit bonfires, and visited neighbors to do more of the same. 

Then the Reformation swept through Scotland, and a sober lot the Scottish Protestants must’ve been. They frowned on Christmas celebrations. (They frowned on a lot of things.) No more feasting. No funning around. Sober up, you lot, because this is serious stuff. And by this, I mean everything–religion, life, and anything else you happen to mention. For part of the seventeenth century, the Christmas break was banned. Christmas didn’t become a public holiday in Scotland until 1958. Boxing Day–that spare Christmastide holiday that falls on December 26 and that the English never quite manage to explain to outsiders–didn’t join it until 1974.

Scotland, remember, doesn’t run by English law. It confuses me too if that makes you feel any better.

And in case it isn’t already clear, both of those last two dates, the ones marking the time when Christmas was allowed to show it be-tinseled face again, are in the twentieth century.

So what was the result of all this sobriety? The fun moved to New Year’s Eve and its surrounding days. 

No one’s sure where the name Hogmanay came from. The origin might be French. It also might be Greek. It could be Anglo-Saxon. Or possibly Scandinavian. In an assortment of those languages, it might mean gala day, it might mean holy month, and it might mean your linguist is highly imaginative.

What do people do? Drink. Party. Hold a torchlight parade. Sing “Auld Lang Syne,” preferably with arms linked. Set off fireworks. Watch terrible TV programs. (I’m quoting that from the Metro there. The link’s above, turning, somewhat randomly, “or so I’ve read” blue. What people do on Hogmanay isn’t something I’d know, down here in Hogmanayless Cornwall. But since I’m already tucked neatly into parentheses here, I might as well point out that not all these traditions are traditional. That business with the TV, for example…)

But Hogmanay includes much more domestic, and probably original, traditions, like cleaning the house before the holiday, and take the old ashes out of the fireplace. 

And then there’s first footing. This is supposed to predict how a family’s year will go. If the first person to come through the door after midnight (together with his or her feet) is a tall, dark-haired man, all will be well. Blond hair? Bad luck. That may have come from having a countryful of blond-haired Viking invaders around, but it’s all lost in the murk of time. It could also be an earlier tradition. 

I’m not sure what a short, bald woman coming through the door predicts. Probably an eccentric year.

If the first footer brings a piece of coal and a roll made of rye flour, the family will be warm and fed through the year.

In Stonehaven, near Aberdeen, people set fire to  balls made of chicken wire, paper, and rags, then swing them around–as any sensible person would. In South Queensferry, people run into the freezing cold sea to raise money for some charity or other. In Kirkwall (that’s in the Orkneys), they play the Ba’ game–a street football game that can last anywhere from four minutes to eight hours, depending on how long it takes for one faction to get a goal. It can involve as many as 350 players. A BBC program described it as not so much a game as a civil war. Shopkeepers board up their windows in advance.  The ball weighs three pounds, the game has no hard and fast rules, and injuries are–.

Okay, serious injuries are “fairly rare.” Players have been known to try to reach the goal over the rooftops.

This year, Edinburgh’s old-fashioned Hogmanay uproar includes a street party with £85 tickets, put on by the Underbelly, which seems to have taken over a lot of Edinburgh’s public events and runs a lot of venues during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The events run for four days (I doubt £85 will get you access to all of them, but what do I know?) and are expected to attract some 70,000 people to the city.

Having gotten permission for the events, the Underbelly proceeded to overplay its hand, telling people who lived on the street where it was throwing its party that they’d have to apply for passes to get to their own homes. They could also apply for up to six passes for their friends. And if they wanted to throw their own Hogmanay party with more than six people? After a bit of uproar, they were told they could apply for more passes.

Oh, and the police and fire services would get information on everyone who was applying.

After a bit more uproar, it was all a misunderstanding. The Underbelly never meant to keep anyone from anything and, you know, it’s all just a traditional part of a good old-fashioned Hogmanay.

The police have said the restrictions are unenforceable. I’m writing this on December 29 and no one, including the Underbelly, seems to have a clue how it will deal with people heading for private parties in the area.

And in case I haven’t mentioned it, at least some of Edinburgh’s events involve bagpipes. If anyone’s exercised about how anyone’s going to sleep, the papers haven’t mentioned it.

Wishing you all a good Hogmanay. If this is the first you’ve heard of it, you have just enough time to organize something.

92 thoughts on “Hogmanay: What to do when you can’t celebrate Christmas

  1. Was hoping the word Hogmanay originally came from the simple celebration of finishing the year whilst still owning many hogs.The TV tradition is now real in the rest of the non New Years Eve party-going UK, an eclectic musical party presented by Jools Holland and is called ‘Hootenany’. Which probably comes from the old folkloric tradition of making your nanny hoot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, that got me running to Lord Google to ask the origin of the word hootenanny. It’s American and was originally used like “doohicky,” as a placeholder for a word you couldn’t think of. One of Lord G’s minions says it’s of unknown origin and another says it’s Appalachian but originally came from Scotland, where it meant a party or celebration. So you’re onto something there. I never would have made that leap.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Tourists. They’re all tourists. I’m just sure of it. And I don’t say that because of any conviction about Scots and money. It’s just that they’re aiming every damn event in Edinburgh at tourists lately. One or two of the articles I read talked about it getting to the point where they’re hollowing our the real city and replacing it with B&Bs and Disneyland events.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your post was very educational for me. I have added the word Hogmanay to my vocabulary for 2020 and will be delighted to use it in a sentence should the occasion arise.
    Hogmanay clearly has a checkered ancestry which might have been very confusing for me had I not watched the entire 50 seasons of Outlander which is a series that gave Pretty and me insight into the struggles between the Scots and the British. The Scots were the ones with bagpipes.The British wore the bright red coats – please do explain why soldiers wore bright red coats in battle and Scots played music as they waged war against the red coats.
    Finally, I am in love with the designation “daft days.” I’ve already thought of like a thousand ways I can use that in 2020, and I won’t limit usage to a particular holiday season.
    I am woke.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m also woke. In fact, I was woke by our neighbor calling to tell us our car horn was screaming and had been since who knows when. Wild Thing heard it, thought she’d developed tinnitus, and went back to sleep. Our neighbors have not killed us. That’s my definition of good neighbors. The one who called didn’t even scream.

      Now. Let’s talk about bagpipes. Wild Thing read somewhere that they were a weapon of war–or a weapon of terror, if you prefer, a bit like the Maori haka, if you’re familiar with it. They scare the hell out of the enemy before anyone’s close enough to shed a drop of blood. Plus the crank your side up. Of the two, I prefer the haka, although if I’m not right on top of them I have a kind of distant admiration for bagpipes.

      I can’t explain the red coats except to say that guerrilla warfare hadn’t been introduced. Or, clearly, camouflage.

      You’re going to need some luck if you’re waiting for an opportunity to use the word Hogmanay in Texas.

      Thanks for giving me a good laugh.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oops. I should’ve been reading more closely. The alleged British were the English. I’m too lazy to look up whether the story’s set before or after Scotland and England became one country as opposed to two countries sharing one king (which is confusing for people who aren’t used to that kind of carrying on). Calling them British was a case of Ameri-speak (as in “the British are coming, the British are coming”) creeping into a situation where it only confuses the issue. Thanks for the (speaking of being woke) wake-up call.

        That explanation of the red uniforms does sound familiar. It makes no sense whatsoever, at least to my admittedly odd mind, but that’s not to say it’s wrong.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I may be wrong, but I think most of the Commonwealth still technically recognise Elizabeth as their Queen (although there are certainly republican leanings in Australia at least)
          I’m certainly no expert either on Scots’ history, but I think the battles in this case were more about which king to put on the throne than Scottish separatism (Bonnie Prince Charlie anyone?)

          Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, that probably explains the red coats. And of course the Scots are British, too, although in the fictionalized television series Outlander there is some doubt whether the Scots were originally thrilled about it. You’re right. It’s not that simple.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s wonderful stuff (apart from the bagpipes, arguably), but I have mixed feelings about these events becoming ticketed, especially at such a high, therefore exclusive, price. In theory, it will create control and prevent partying getting out of hand, but if it cannot even ensure a reasonable level of order…

    Liked by 1 person

    • If I lived on that street, I’d be homicidal. I suspect I’d rather put up with a group of disorganized noisy drunks on the street than overpriced, over-amplified music that went on until three a.m. Drunks, at least, come and go. They don’t just keep cranking out the noise. And they don’t have amps.


  4. First footing…for the first visitor a black haired man is required bearing a lump of coal and a bottle of whisky….rye rolls indeed! Faugh!
    I remember the creakingly awful TV…the White Heather Club…Andy Stewart and, whisper it not in Gath, Scotland’s secret weapon – no, not bagpipes, though they did indeed figure, but Jimmy Shand and his Band playing the Bluebell Polka.
    Coming from the west coast I had always thought of the denizens of Edinburgh as wimps…try getting people to apply for passes to get to their homes for Hogmanay in Glasgow…the Weegies would have the organisers strung up by their sporrans.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. –as any sensible person would. Well, thanks for another good belly laugh. I have wondered what Hogmanay was, but never looked it up. Maybe I can light up a ball of chicken wire and swim it around without getting arrested this new year’s eve. I’ve got plenty of the stuff in the garden.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I went to grad school in Edinburgh and remember enjoying the Hogmany events but I’m also unsure of its origins and what it represents–other than just being an additional excuse to drink in excess around the New Year. Thanks for the memories!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Being English to my core I’ve never understood the Scottish obsession with prancing around in skirts while squeezing pigs bladders. That probably goes back to my childhood days, when there were only two tv channels and they tried to outdo each other with their New Year McNaff shows. Springsteen moaned about having 57 channels with nothing on – try just having two! I’ll just try and sleep through it all as usual, until some prat starts letting off fireworks.

    And a quick word on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny: it’s so authentic that it is pre-recorded in November. Now you don’t need to watch it – thank me later 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It is rather surprising how many Appalachian traditions/songs came from Scotland. Sharyn McCrumb has authored several books (fiction and non-fiction) that describe some of the connections.(She throws in a few banshees. which/who I don’t think are Scottish.)

    A couple years ago in the US some organization sponsored some vast music festival that was a total failure, lost money, ripped people off, etc etc. Sounds like The Underbelly people have been studying Their American Cousins.
    The Ba Game sounds suspiciously like it arose from a ball game the Maya played, which involved putting a solid rubber ball about the size of a basketball through a stone hoop on the wall of the stadium. Players could use any body part but the hands to direct the ball. At end of
    the game, the captain of the losing team (some sources say the winning t eam) was beheaded as a sacrifice.
    Fun times in the New World !

    Liked by 1 person

    • I just looked up the origin of banshee: It’s Irish. So celticly related, but you’re right, not Scottish.

      I’ve often wondered how accurate the tales of the Mayan ball games are, given how little they have to reconstruct that from. Any idea?


      • I think they are going by artworks depicting them. But you certainly have a point, since they don’t seem to be sure whose captain got beheaded.

        It wouldn’t surprise me if the Scots had some version of a banshee, but I will try to do some research. Don’t want to hold you up on your own research ! You have deadlines, whereas I have only cats.

        How were the Sprouts ?


        • I think I’ll take a pass on researching banshees, Mayan ball games, and–um, what else were we talking about? Archaeologists. I go down enough rabbit holes as it is. Plus I’m responsible to a cat as well, who considers himself a deadline, and not a negotiable one. As I’m sure yours do. Don’t read that, he says. Read me.

          The sprouts were fine. I’m one of the three people who like them.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. Well Ellen – I enjoyed all your research into Hogmanay and the comments and thought I would add a wee bit about my own experiences. When I was young (not so very long ago!) we would all go and stay with Granny and Granpaw for new year- cousins, aunties, uncles – near Kirkintilloch. The children would all go to bed at a normal time and be happily asleep….only to be woken up nearing midnight to be told to wash so we were clean for the new year. Granny would have a strip wash in the kitchen, while the clootie dumpling boiled on the stove. Then we would wait for the first footer- a tall dark handsome man was the order of the day but my Mum had the darkest hair of the gathering. She would go out the back door collecting a lump of coal and a bottle of whisky and knock on the front door. Everyone had to wonder who might be at the door and then Mum would appear triumphantly with the whisky and coal and shouts of Happy New Year would fill the air. The children were trying to stay awake as midnight chimed and we raised our glasses of throat burning ginger cordial. The grown ups had whisky or brandy or sherry or port or…..whatever and we toasted the New year in. Then we sat down to eat a wodge of clootie dumpling (look that one up Ellen) before going back to bed and peace. I must say I enjoyed it all much more when I was a grown up!

    New Years day was celebrated with a steak pie, similar to the one favoured by Desperate Dan and we would all have to “do a turn” ie sing, tell a joke or a story …..we made our own amusement then!

    So there you have it – not The Child’s Garden of Verses but The Child’s Version of Hogmanay!

    Liked by 3 people

  10. I have never been to Scotland for Hogmany but I grew up watching the White Heather club on New year’s eve television. It seemed to involve a lot of men dancing in kilts often over swords. I also think they first foot. The first person over your door step after midnight with a piece of coal and some bread will bring you luck. You must of course link arms and sing the Robbie Burns poem “should old acquaintance be forgot and have a wee dock an doris.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. My Scottish grandmother always insisted that my dad first foot her house – tall, black-haired, carrying something to eat, something to drink, and something to keep you warm. In her house, it was also the time to burn down any old candles and get rid of the old calendars. I’d forgotten that it was all part of Hogmanay.(There wasn’t much special cleaning – her house was always spotless.) Thanks for the reminder

    Liked by 1 person

  12. You’re so full of knowledge! It’s all confusing but you explain it so well! Thanks so much for linking up at the #UnlimitedMonthlyLinkParty 8. Pinned.

    Have you seen my short story link party? It is a creative writing exercise for fun and without a lot of editing. Just start typing and see what you come up with! Remember, no story is too short! See the party on my site for the current prompt, closes on the 9th.

    Liked by 1 person

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