Ancient origins of Hogmanay

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From past to present: happy Hogmanay!

Ancient origins of Hogmanay
Bringing in the new year with style (Hannah Johnston/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images)

"Each age has deemed the new-born year, the fittest time for festal cheer"

— Sir Walter Scott, poet and novelist

Many might be forgiven for thinking that the Scottish tradition of Hogmanay is simply a good excuse to get drunk on New Year's Eve, snog a bunch of strangers in the streets at midnight, and have a fine old time. Well, yes it is! But, there's far more to Hogmanay than that. The reality is that Hogmanay is a celebration that has its origins in the very distant past, and takes its inspiration from both Scottish and worldwide history, folklore, myth and legend. It's time for us to acquaint you with the intriguing and amazing origins of the world's most famous New Year's Eve celebration of all.

Hogmanay: In the beginning

Ancient origins of Hogmanay
From the Vikings to France (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

In today's busy and bustling world, there's very much a tendency to focus on right now, without giving much thought to periods and people of centuries past. But, that's a big tragedy, because it's those same people, and the times in which they lived, that have formed and influenced some of our greatest and most fun-filled celebrations of all, including Hogmanay. And such is the strength and power of the old beliefs and ideas that led to the creation of this festive night, they still hold power over us to this very day - even if we're not exactly sure why.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Hogmanay is not that its origins are old, but that they are really old. Like back to the Vikings old. Indeed, at least part of the tradition of Hogmanay can be traced back to the invasion and claiming of much of Scotland by these fierce warriors in the 8th Century. For the Vikings, it was the Winter Solstice - of December 21 to 22 - that had to be celebrated, revered and respected, rather than Christmas Day. On top of that, from the late 1600s onward, Christmas was almost outlawed in Scotland, in accordance with the laws of the Protestant Reformation. The combined result: New Year's Eve and the following day became far more significant to the Scots than the day on which we are told Jesus was born. But, adding more to the mix, some historians believe that a 13th-16th Century alliance that existed between France and Scotland played a role in the creation of Hogmanay, too. Or, at least in the formation of the name. As evidence of this, there exists in France an old word for a new year's gift: Hoguinané. Its similarity to the word Hogmanay is clear to see. Thus it was that with input from both the French and the Vikings - the latter being a race of people whose every actions were steeped in superstition and mythology - Hogmanay, and its attendant rituals and rites of a near-magical nature came to be.

The old traditions continue

Ancient origins of Hogmanay
Protection from the spirit world (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

Certainly, one of the most heart-warming things about the archaic origins of Hogmanay, as well as its associated traditional beliefs of centuries-past, is that they are still embraced to this very day by the people of Scotland. Despite the long passage of time and the massive changes in culture that recent centuries have brought, the bygone ways are still very much dominating when December 31 comes calling. Indeed, it's almost as if time eerily turns backwards on the big night, and the present is quickly replaced by the past - one filled with magic, mystical energy and deeply-respected superstitions of old.

Of all the many and varied Hogmanay-linked rituals that still persist and which are celebrated on New Year's Eve, one that takes pride of place is that of the Saining. Ancient Scottish lore maintains that at the time of the crossover from one year to another - Hogmanay - the veil that exists between our world and that of supernatural beings, such as goblins, elves and pixies, begins to fall. Thus, it's essential to make use of some form of good luck charm that will offer protection from the creatures that lurk on the other side. And, on Hogmanay, that old ritual still has a major role to play in Scottish festivities. So, what does it all entail? Well, the process begins with the downing of a glassful of water. But, not tap-water or bottled-water. No: this water has to come right out of the heart of a flowing stream. Following that, it's vital you take a bottle of the same water home with you and splash it throughout every room. Then, with that action complete, it's time for the final ritual: that of waving the smoking branches of a burned juniper tree from floor to ceiling. And, with this centuries-old Hogmanay-themed tradition complete, you can sleep sound and safe after your night of celebration.

Food for Hogmanay: then and now

If there is one thing, above all else, that must be adhered to on Hogmanay, it's the tradition of feasting on certain, specific types of food. Very few people realise, however, that this is not a modern day routine, or just a convenient excuse for shovelling down your favourite food by the plateful. No. Once again, it's the Scottish folk of centuries long-gone that still, to this day, deeply influence the nature of what must be eaten as December 31 moves into January 1. And the range of items from the old menu is as varied as it is delicious.

Beyond any shadow of doubt, when it comes to food, the most celebrated of all the very old traditions of Hogmanay is that of first-footing. While it echoes the 8th Century beliefs of the Vikings that good luck charms would make the new year a thriving one, the origins of the Hogmanay-linked first-footing rituals can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. First-footing is a complex rite in which a man - who can only have a full head of black hair - must enter the home of the person being blessed with a good luck gift of nourishment. And that present can take the form of a shot of whisky (of course!), a loaf of bread, or a bag of salt. As for good hearty meals for Hogmanay, well, again, while there are many, few people realize they are delicacies steeped in historical lore, much of which is focused around old beliefs that certain foods would bring good fortune for the new year. They include a thick and tasty bowl of Scotch broth, a Clootie dumpling - which is basically a sweet pudding of fruit - and an equally fruity, pastry-covered cake known as a Black Bun. As delicious now as they were when the traditions began!

Tips and warnings

  • Eat, drink and be merry. Celebrate the history of Hogmanay. Appreciate the people of times long gone that laid down the foundations of the big night. And have a fantastic time!

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