Wednesday, 31 December 2014

What's this Hogmanay thing?

Happy Hogmanay to you!

Happy New Years Eve just doesn't have the same ring to it, I don't think, but what about you?

The origin of the word 'Hogmanay' can not be certain but it’s a word that has been used in Scotland to describe the 31st December, New Year’s Eve, for centuries. A popular meaning given to Hogmanay is that of it being ‘a gift’ and especially ‘a gift of good luck’.

Gregor Lamb, an Orcadian, has done years of research into the word Hogmanay and has produced a book named ‘The Amazing Journey of the Word Hogmanay’. In his book, he concludes that ‘Hogmanay’ was originally a greeting to herald in the New Year but that it referred specifically to the gift that was traditionally tendered when entering someone’s home.
This use of the word, in various guises, has been used in parts of mainland Europe since medieval times- in 13th century Catalan as ‘guinaldo’. That sounds nothing like Hogmanay to me, but that word refers to the same traditions being enacted. In Spain, the ‘aguinaldo’ has its counterpart in France in the word ‘aguillanneuf’, the latter word having being taken to Britain with the Norman invasion. At this point Gregor lamb states that the word had acquired an ‘h’ at the beginning, the word evolving over the next centuries to the one we know of as Hogmanay.

In St. Hilaire de Chaleons, near Nantes in France the ceremony known as Courir la Guillanneuf is currently being revived, though in recent years the practice had almost faded into obscurity.
Other possible derivations of the word Hogmanay include the Flemish ‘hoog min dag’ meaning ‘a day of great love’, and the Anglo-Saxon ‘haleg monath’ meaning ‘holy month’. Since many Doric words of north east Scotland, and Laland Scots of the Central Lowlands have some comparison with those of Flemish and Dutch origin I personally favour the Dutch one which sounds fairly similar.

Whether or not you agree with Gregor’s conclusions regarding the etymology of the word Hogmanay, or with Dutch or Flemish origins of the word, the traditions on New Year’s Eve go back in millennia rather than centuries.

The bearing of a gift for good luck to the household visited was common in pagan societies. Pagan winter celebrations, especially around the winter solstice, included the gift of fire making. A log was carried over the threshold symbolising the return of the sun after the darkest days had passed- i.e. after the winter solstice. The Vikings brought their Yule traditions which featured the bearing of a log over the threshold, and maybe it was them who brought the notion that fire wards off evil spirits who dwell in the darkness.  
When I was growing up in Glasgow, Hogmanay was a time of great frenzy. New Year’s Day was THE official holiday in Scotland, Christmas Day being an unofficial one till the early 1970s when its status as a statuary holiday changed. New Year’s Day meant a lot more to the Scots I grew up with though different households kept slightly different variations of the tradition.
First footing in my youth was when the first visitor of the New Year stepped over the doorstep sometime after the stroke of midnight. The hope was that it was a tall, dark and handsome stranger who came bearing gifts among which was a piece of coal, to bring good luck for the coming year. The use of coal had supplanted the log at some point after coal became the widely used form of heat production from the hearth. The dark hair was commonly preferred because a blond haired guest was thought to be unlucky, probably harkening back to the blond Viking raider that no-one wanted entering their house at any time, far less New Year! A small bite to eat usually accompanied the gift of coal to signify good wishes for the household to be healthy and wealthy enough to afford to eat during the coming year.

Fruitcake, shortbread and black bun are the general foods to offer guests, and for the first footers to give to their hosts. In Scotland, the drink toasted and shared is, of course, whisky - that fiery drink which warms the belly and some may say ‘cures all ills’ when administered as in a hot toddy for a cold! The children, in my young days, toasted the New Year with ginger or blackcurrant wine.

In my youth, any fire ceremonies took place in other parts of Scotland but not in Glasgow, as far as I know and remember.

Nowadays fire plays a major part in Hogmanay celebrations, with torchlight processions and bonfires in specific and organised locations. Fireworks are now also a popular activity, sometimes let off from back gardens or viewed at organised displays.

In Stonehaven, in North East Scotland, there is a long-standing tradition of making giant fireballs from rags doused in paraffin, swung on poles and paraded through the town's streets. At around 10 kilos weight, the bearer has to be very careful of how they wield that ‘almost weapon’. To be one of the fireball bearers in Stonehaven is a very well sought after ‘gift’ indeed - those chosen being incredibly proud of the opportunity.

There are many internet sites which can describe the street parties that are organised in the major Scottish cities which take place on Hogmanay and run over ‘The Bells’ at midnight and into the brand New Year. I encourage you also to read about the various places where people do a ‘Loony Dook’ for fun or for charity. In warmer climes running into the sea isn’t a major event but running into the North Sea, or a beach off the west coast if Scotland, is definitely a MAJOR event- it being an extremely freezing cold dip.

In Scotland, and indeed world – wide, the most iconic celebration around the New Year is to herald ‘The Bells’ with the singing of Robert Burn’s poem Auld Lang Syne sung to the traditional melody he used at the time of writing.

Whatever you do on Hogmanay I know what I’m now about to embark on. In my mother’s house, there was a frenzy of cleaning. The floors were vacuumed, the surfaces dusted and polished. The front doorstep was whitewashed and the stairs around our flat in the tenement block were washed. The windows were washed and the rooms tidied. The beds were stripped and were made up with fresh linen. The dirty washing was done and dried as quickly as possible- which with no tumble dryer at that time was a major feat. Needless to say, the coal fire was roaring away but often blocked with damp and drying washing. The cherry and fruit cake was made as well as many other tasty morsels. I’ve blogged on this site before about my mother’s baking sprees.

Any projects started i.e. knitting, sewing, house painting as in decorating, or in artwork were expected to have been completed so that the New Year saw a fresh start to EVERYTHING.  

By very late evening, no later than 11.30 p.m. we all aimed to have our faces washed and clean clothes on. The kitchen bin was emptied and the dish towels generally the last things to be washed.
Seated pre-midnight, before The Bells, was obligatory so that we were ready to sing and toast the New Year (and as it happened- it was also my mother’s birthday).
You can read about my exploits from that point on - mignight and The Bells already rung - in a previous post.
I've also blogged elsewhere about my Hogmanay exploits and a google search might find them!

Well, this blog has taken a while to write so I’ve got a lot of Hogmanay cleaning to catch up with. I don’t think I’ll manage to complete my latest round of edits but if I try really hard… we’ll see!

Cheers till later…

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