Hogmanay: what is it and how is it celebrated?

Hogmanay: what is it and how is it celebrated?

New Year's Eve is celebrated all over the world, but nowhere does it with as much enthusiasm or passion as Scotland


An incredible fireworks display makes Edinburgh Castle look even more magical
An incredible fireworks display makes Edinburgh Castle look even more magical
Photo: AP


Vikings from Shetland Isles take part in the celebrations at Edinburgh castle.
Vikings from Shetland Isles take part in the celebrations at Edinburgh castle.
Photo: Reuters

This morning, when I said “Happy Hogmanay” to sub-editor Sam, he asked me if I was speaking Chinese.

So what exactly is Hogmanay?

Hogmanay is the Scottish word for the last day of the year (December 31), and the celebrations that night.

The origins of the word aren't known for certain, but some people think it comes from the Gaelic word oge maidne, meaning new morning, or the French word "aguillanneuf" meaning happy new year, a term which is usually associated with exchanging presents.

People celebrate Hogmanay, or New Year's Eve, in Scotland because traditionally it celebrates the passing of the shortest day of winter. Scotland is quite far north and has long, dark winters where the sun rises late and sets early. So the Hogmanay celebration is linked to the Winter Solstice, and is a sign that days will start to get longer and lighter.

Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and other Scottish cities all hold festive street parties on Hogmanay, and Edinburgh's is one of the most famous. Edinburgh castle is spectacularly lit up with fireworks and there is a wide variety of live entertainment, DJs and other performers - this year Lily Allen is just one of the many stars lined up to play.

A spectacular view of Edinburgh at Hogmanay. Photo: Scottish Viewpoint

The Edinburgh Hogmanay celebration was the biggest street party in the world at one point - one year there were 400,000 people there. In recent years though, the number of guests is usually closer to 75,000.

Further north in Scotland, fire is a central focus of the celebrations. In Stonehaven, they hold a fireball ceremony at midnight, and hundreds of people swing huge balls of fire in wire cages around their heads. The origins of this are thought to date back to Viking times, when fire was used to drive out evil spirits during the darkness of winter.

At midnight on Hogmanay, it is tradition to sing Robert Burns' Auld Lang Syne. People cross their arms and link in a huge circle - usually the entire gathering comes together for this moment. The lyrics are about remembering the good times, and celebrating them, but also about moving forward to the present and looking forward to the future.

One of many Hogmanay traditions is that of a first footer. A first footer is the very first person to step foot in your house on New Year's Day (technically any time after midnight on New Year's Eve). This person should be male, tall and dark-haired for good luck. Anyone with fair hair or female is bad luck as a first footer. The roots of this are thought to date back again to the Viking period - opening the door to find a huge, blond-haired Viking outside was usually a sign of trouble!

You don't want to see this face when you open the door to a first footer! Photo: Reuters

The first footer can't be someone from inside the house who runs outside and steps back in - that's cheating and doesn't bring any luck!

Usually the first footer is a neighbour or friend who lives nearby. They will bring gifts with them to bring the house good luck. Historically, these were: a coin, bread, salt, coal and whisky. This symbolises that the household will be wealthy, well-fed, flavour, warmth and be in good cheer for the year ahead.

Although first footing is still practised all over Scotland, nowadays most people just bring whisky and shortbread when they arrive. Some houses have been known not to let people in if the first footer is a woman or a man not bearing gifts!

It's tradition for the first footer to share a drink with the household after they welcome him in.

In Scotland, both the first and second of January are public holidays, to give everyone a chance to recover from all the partying!

Enjoy Hogmanay, and Happy New Year from Scotland!


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