Despite some determined academic studies the origin of the term, “Hogmanay” remains obscure. Opinions differ as to whether the linguistic origins are from the Gaelic oge maidne ("New Morning"), the Flemish hoog min dag ("Great Love Day"), the Anglo-Saxon Haleg Monath ("Holy Month"), Guernsey’s hoginono or Norman French word hoguinané (or variants such as hoginono and hoguinettes), which was derived from the 16th century Old French anguillanneuf ("gift at New Year") or even the more modern French au gui mener ("lead to the mistletoe”).
The most likely source would appear to be the French. "Homme est né" or "Man is born" or the previously referenced "hoguinettes", the French Norman presents given at that time.
The New Year’s celebration in 1604 was mentioned in the Elgin Records as hagmonay. The Oxford English Dictionary of 1680 defines Hogmynae-night as a festival. A similar Scottish practice to that in Normandy was recorded in 1693, rather disapprovingly, by the Church of Scotland, "It is ordinary among some Plebeians in the South of Scotland, to go about from door to door upon New Year’s Eve, crying Hagmane." The word continues to 1696 with references noted to someone singing “a hog ma nae song”.
Many historians believe that we can give the Norse credit for any celebration at that time of the year, which was near the significant passing of the shortest day in the year. In Shetland, for example, where Norse influence was strongest, they celebrated their interpretation of the Druidic Yule, Hoggo-nott or hogenat which became the twelve days of Christmas, or the "Daft Days" as they became known in Scotland. There is no doubt however that Hogmanay was a mix of arcane customs from many separate though connected cultures. Many of the American-Scottish organizations choose to pay homage to the Scots and the Norse for their contributions and yet another reason to have a party!
Of special significance to our study here is that Christmas was not celebrated as a high feast day or festival and was virtually banned in Scotland for four hundred years, until the end of the 17th century and then not generally accepted literally until the 1960’s and even the 1970’s. The ban which sent Christmas underground had its roots in the Protestant Reformation when the Presbyterian Church (Church of Scotland) portrayed Christmas as a sinister Catholic Celebration and therefore banned. Apparently this looked like too much good fun for the rather dour brand of Calvinism adopted by John Knox and his followers. Many Scots, then, worked over the Christmas “holiday” so the major event of this festive season became the Caledonian Celebration of Hogmanay, at the New Year.
Hogmanay, then, took the place of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (celebrated in the rest of the Christian World) when family and friends formally gathered to party and exchange presents. Hogmanay became the big winter celebration which prevails despite the recent resurgence of Christmas which has to the delight of most Scots now regained general acceptance in Scotland.
There is no doubt that with the amalgamation of so many populations and cultures to include the traditional alliance of Scotland and France and the heavy influence of the Druidic, Norse, Celtic and other Continental cultures, this celebration certainly has a life that continues to this very day. While many, but not all, of the old rituals have been forgotten, the holiday has re-emerged with a new vigor via 21st century protocols. The enthusiastic spirit of the celebration remains undiminished.
The great irony here is that Christmas and Hogmanay's roots reach back to Druidic and Celtic revelry and the pagan practice of sun and fire worship of the deep mid-Winter. As we have noted in a previous narrative, this evolved into the ancient Roman Saturnalia Festival, where people enthusiastically celebrated, completely free of restraint and inhibition. With Emperor Constantine’s cautious support for Christianity (he was baptized on his deathbed), he merged many pagan traditions including the conversion of Saturnalia, the annual celebration of the Roman Sun God and the December 25th birthday celebration of Mithras, the Persian God of Light into what became “Christmas.” This facilitated a seamless transition from the pagan to the new religion and made Christianity more palatable for Roman citizens. Thusly, Constantine arbitrarily set the date of December 25 as Christmas[i], a date we now know to be months and years from the true date though in enthusiastic support of the wishes of the people to continue their winter revelries.
We do know, however, that the true official date for Hogmanay is December 31, New Year’s Eve, the start of an exuberant celebration which lasts through the night until the morning of January 1st, (Ne'erday, a contraction of "New Year's Day" in Scots dialect) and in many cases even to January 2nd, all official Scottish holidays.[ii]
In the modern Scottish cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Stirling, for example, Hogmanay has become a huge ticketed festival with hundreds of thousands of revelers taking to the streets (not unlike the hedonistic celebrations at Times Square in NYC) to celebrate the New Year! These celebrations generally start in the early evening and reach a crescendo by midnight. Minutes before the start of new year, a lone piper plays, then the bells of local churches chime at the turn of midnight accompanied by lots of kissing and then the revelers singing the Bard’s Auld Lang Syne[iii].
Throughout Scotland and particularly in her more remote parts, the tradition of pre-Christian fire ceremonies that include torch light processions, fireball swinging (Stonehaven) and lighting of New Year fires, still play an important part in Hogmanay. We in the Kingdome of Raknar are humbly reminded of our frustrations at Gude King Hägar’s Viking funeral and our attempt to burn his handcrafted, eight foot Longboat at Barren River, Kentucky on the occasion of Hogmanay in 1994. Children shouldn’t play with matches though we appear to do OK with the great Scots bonfires!
The Hogmanay Fire is reminiscent of ancient pagan customs and symbolizes the power of the sun and the purification of the world by the consumption of all evil spirits; “bringing the light of knowledge from one year to the next, lighting the way into the next uncharted century, putting behind you the darkness past, but carrying forward its sacred flame of hope and enlightenment to a better parish, and in this day, world.”[iv]
Interestingly, the custom of lighting kerosene soaked balls of yarn or tightly woven rags and tossing and swinging these fiery objects at night as a way of celebrating Christmas and New Year’s is still even practiced in several Georgia and Alabama counties in the United States! The tradition is believed to have derived from the ancient Scottish fire rituals described herein.[v]
The Scottish customs of First Footing and Ceilidhs (kay-lees) are integral to Hogmanay celebrations and as in ancient times, are well practiced in the American-Scottish community.
Many Scots bent on the prospects of a prosperous new year usually secure the services of a "tall, dark stranger" to appear at their door with a lump of symbolic coal for the fire, shortbread, salt, black bun and whisky and the traditional toast to the Family of “A guid new year to ane an a’” (one and all) in return for food, wine or a wee dram of whisky, or the traditional Het Pint, a combination of ale, nutmeg and whisky. This writer has bought many a chunk of anthracite in anticipation of this generous reward!
“He shouldnae come empty-haundit. Traditionally, he would gie ye saut and a bit o coal tae bring ye prosperity for the comin year. Ye maun gie him a dram.”[vi]
Though many members of the American-Scottish Community may not harbor the memory of blond-haired Vikings raping and pillaging, they do delight in a celebration that rewards the brown-eyed, brown-haired “first foot” in the door after midnight and the attendant good luck it proffers to that household. Hogmanay celebrations include all the above especially the traditional welcome of Family, Friends and potential new Friends, with warm hospitality and, of course, a kiss to wish everyone a Guid New Year. While we can traditionally clean our houses on 31st December via the Hogmanay Redding maybe we can have a go at paying all our debts before "the bells" at midnight? Eh?
Yours, Aye & Happy Hogmanay
[i] Those that follow the sometime circuitous meanderings of The Scriptures can arrive at a date of September 15th, (the year is even more elusive) while others find his birth in February or August. Muddying the waters further there are other Christian sects that have celebrated the birth of Jesus on over one hundred different dates! Pope Julius in 337CE reaffirmed Constantine’s earlier ruling by maintaining the festivities and continuing the blending of pagan revelry with celebrations for Christ’s birthday. The die was cast.
[ii] When Ne'erday falls on a Sunday, 3 January becomes an additional public holiday in Scotland; when Ne'erday falls on a Saturday, both 3 January and 4 January will be public holidays in Scotland. Most Scots still celebrate Ne'erday with a special dinner, usually steak pie. Wikipedia.com
[iii] The words to Auld Lang Syne (“old long ago”, hence “times long ago”) were adapted by Robert Burns from an earlier traditional poem while the tune had been in print for over 80 years before Burns published his version in 1788. The words to Auld Lang Syne are written in Old Scots, the language most commonly spoken in Scotland until 1707 when the Scottish and English Crowns were joined by the Act of Union.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear, For auld lang syne, We'll tak a cup o'kindness yet For auld lang syne!
[v] Holiday Fireball Tradition Revisited, By Anne Kimzey, December 1993, Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, Montgomery, Alabama