Although I lived in England as a child, my Scottish mother always insisted that we celebrate New Year’s Eve in the Scottish way, as her parents and grandparents had. All bills were paid, the house was cleaned, then before midnight the old year was taken out of the back door, then all doors and windows in the house were closed, trapping any revellers in until the first person (the first foot) came to the front door after midnight, bringing in the New Year with them.
Normally, because I was the only child at this otherwise adult celebration, I was put out on the back step a few minutes before midnight, removing the old year from the house along with a mince pie, a piece of coal and a glass of whisky.
I would then run round to the front of the house and wait for the door to open, whereupon I would walk in, accompanied by the fresh New Year and declaim:
Lang may your lum reek, may ye hae whisky in yer pouch, and a bawbee in yer pocket.
After this, everyone would cheer, I would get to eat the mince pie, my mother would drink the whisky, and the party would continue until everyone went home or passed out.
I knew that it was terribly bad luck for the old and the new year to clash, which resulted in some extraordinary operations to ensure they didn’t, including, when we lived in a first floor flat for some years, me taking the old year out onto the balcony, then climbing down a rope ladder to the ground before running round to the front, causing great amusement to our English neighbours, who thought we were insane. So deeply was this ingrained into me that I still perform this ritual every year, which currently involves me going out of my back door and then climbing over my neighbour’s fence in order to get round to the front again.
The origin of the actual Scottish word for New Year, Hogmanay, isn’t known, although there are various candidates. It could be from the French ‘homme est né’ (man is born) or from the Gaelic ‘og mhadainn’ (new morning). Certainly many of the customs and traditions associated with the Scottish celebration of the last day of the year probably originate from the Norse invaders, who brought their midwinter customs with them. The winter in both the north of Scotland and in Scandinavia is a particularly dark time, so it’s understandable that the pagan celebration of midwinter and of the start of the days getting longer, would have endured long after Christianity had transformed or outlawed many of the other pagan festivals.
Ironically, it’s probably due to the Christians that this originally pagan festival has retained its popularity in Scotland. The Protestant reformation in Scotland was particularly radical, with the result that Christmas, considered by the reformers to be a ‘Papist’ celebration, was banned in Scotland, in 1640 by an Act which stated the following – “… the kirke within this kingdome is now purged of all superstitious observatione of dayes… thairfor the saidis estatis have dischairged and simply dischairges the foirsaid Yule vacance and all observation thairof in tymecomeing, and rescindis and annullis all acts, statutis and warrandis and ordinances whatsoevir granted at any tyme heirtofoir for keiping of the said Yule vacance, with all custome of observatione thairof, and findis and declaires the samene to be extinct, voyd and of no force nor effect in tymecomeing.” There was no national holiday for Christmas in Scotland until 1958, and it was not officially celebrated for over 300 years! People were expected to work and continue as normal on Christmas Day. In addition to this, Scotland was one of the first countries to take January 1st as the start of the new year (most other countries using March 25th), and as the winter is a time when a celebration is most needed to alleviate the cold and gloom of the season, New Year took on greater importance in Scotland than in countries where Christmas was actively celebrated.
Fire was an important aspect of the midwinter festivals, symbolising light, warmth and the return of the sun, and is still reflected in the celebrations in Stonehaven, near Aberdeen, where giant fireballs are swung on poles and taken through the streets, whilst bonfires, torchlit parades and fireworks are an important component of Hogmanay all over Scotland.As for the ‘first foot’ tradition that my mother celebrated so fiercely, this is still quite common across Scotland, although the favoured firstfooter is a dark-haired male rather than a chestnut-haired girl child, who should bring with him coal, food (black bun or shortbread), whisky and salt. It’s believed that the reason the man should be dark-haired dates back to the time when a blond or redhaired man appearing on your doorstep probably signalled a Viking raid rather than a jolly well-wisher!
I have found no references to the phrase I was told to say other than the first line, lang may yer lum reek, so whether this was a unique invention of my Scottish ancestors or has some basis in history, I have no idea!
The gathering in a circle and singing Robbie Burns’ Auld Lang Syne, now popular throughout the world, is obviously a later tradition, as Burns published the poem in 1788, but it’s a lovely way of encouraging people to join together and wish each other well.
If you ever get the chance, I would highly recommend celebrating Hogmanay in Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh. I was lucky enough to enjoy 1999/2000 there, and it was an experience I’ll never forget, one of great joy and celebration, as thousands of peaceful, happy people welcomed in the new millennium with a firework display over Edinburgh Castle and a lot of dancing, singing and good-natured hugging and kissing, which continued until dawn. The next day the whole city was hungover, but in the evening, celebrated again, in a slightly more muted way, with a great atmosphere in all the city’s pubs.
It’s just as well then, that in Scotland (unlike other countries in the UK) the 2nd January is a national holiday, ensuring that even the most dedicated celebrant has time to recover from the resulting hangover before having to return to work!