A time for love, loss and luck
A wee blog about my favourite Hogmanany traditions
I’m sorry, I’m one of those people that really love Christmas. I love decorating Christmas trees; I love finding and wrapping presents; I love watching all my favourite films and special sitcom episodes; I love seeing my family; I love eating and drinking too much; and not to be too soppy, but I love that Connor (my husband) loves these things too.
He’s a grumpy bum the rest of the year but he brightens up for Christmas. In fact, it probably says a lot about our relationship that dead Christmas trees remind me of our first date and we initially bonded due to our preference for Raymond Briggs’s Father Christmas over The Snowman because you get to see his bum.
Of course it can be an extremely solemn time of year. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve had to suffer relatively little grief in my life. Taking time to reflect on loss and luck is a very strong theme in Scottish culture, particularly at Hogmanay (Scottish New Year’s Eve).
For the theatre makers reading this, you might be interested to know that Hogmanay is the backdrop to a number of iconic Scottish pieces. I think everyone who studied Drama in high school after 1988 is forced to perform The Steamie at some point.
I hear some people in London refer to New Years as a bit of a “non holiday” and roll their eyes at Scottish people “getting” - they say rather than “having” or “taking” - the 2nd January off. So I’d like to share some of the reasons it’s such a special time of year.
A lot of Scottish traditions have their roots in paganism (see Halloween for a start). Most are familiar with both the symbolic and practical rituals of bringing evergreens into the home as well as lighting candles and finding reasons to gather around a fire with others in the community to sing and lift each other’s spirits. Basically, it’s dark and cold and the best way to survive is to stick together.
When I worked at Mary King’s Close, I enjoyed being part of the special Christmas tours where we taught tourists about the many underground traditions that flourished when Christmas was practically banned by Scotland’s own-brand puritans as well as Oliver Cromwell in the 16th and 17th centuries. Hogmanay was a good way to keep these cheeky customs going.
And they did sound rather cheeky. For instance, the first lass to “cream the well” got her pick of the lads. Meaning, the first young woman to get her bucket down and up the icy well would likely marry the man she fancied that year. Between this and other similar games it’s easy to see where we got the kissing at midnight idea.
It was common around this time for people to play practical jokes on each other and take part in “guising”. This was when young folk wore masks and played tricks on their neighbours. Yes, Scottish friends, it’s the same as guising at Halloween. Yes, American friends, it’s similar to trick or treating, which comes from guising. It’s also very similar to wassailing which is an English tradition relating to the twelve days of Christmas.
These Scottish hogmanay traditions aren’t common now. However there are a few that continue and are loved by many I know:
The first person to step foot in your house is an omen of the year to come. Ideally you want a tall, dark, handsome man with some coal and whisky to bring your home warmth and luck. If it’s a woman, you’re snookered. Totally sexist, but that’s tradition.
So if Oscar Isaac could turn up at my door I'd really appreciate that.
Opening the windows
This is one I’d actually forgotten until my friend Anna reminded me of it. You open all your doors and windows to cleanse the house and let out any evil spirits hanging over from last year. It basically gives your house a good airing! Apparently Anna’s Australian flatmate was not a fan of this tradition.
Whilst it seems silly that a country with a famously bleak climate in January should foster enormous outdoor events, it is very in-keeping with the rest of the traditions. First-footing, open doors, chasing your neighbours, letting out the stale air, you can see how celebrations easily get moved outdoors. And if you’ve every been to a proper ceilidh, you know the more space you can get the better.
Edinburgh has long held the reputation for having the biggest and most spectacular hogmanay street parties in Scotland. At one point they were Guinness Book of Records worthy although I think (probably for very good health and safety reasons) these have been curtailed slightly. There was a moment when much like the Fringe they were being capitalised a bit too much for liking but (hopefully) covid may have dampened that…
They are still very impressive and while I now prefer the comfort of a friend’s cosy flat party, as a teenager and student they were wonderful to experience. People come from all over the world to bring in the bells (and canon fire) under the silhouette of Edinburgh’s magical castle. And the only way to do that is to sing…
Auld Lang Syne
This is now a global tradition. It’s pretty special that Scotland’s hogmanay celebrations have inspired a custom worldwide even if most people don’t know why.
(I'd have been really annoying in this scene)
There is much debate as to whether it is sung in the conditional tense and if it’s even close to the original tune or lyrics but as Meg says, it's ultimately about old friends.
There are probably quite a few points in this blog that could be debated. I'm sure some will have different interpretations or question the historical accuracy. There are certainly a number of traditions I've missed out. But ultimately the reason for all of these traditions and songs come down to the following:
Remember those you have lost; Love those around you; Hope that you'll still be together next year but know that if you're not, the time you've had was special and will never be forgotten.
Take care and all the best for 2023. x