American traditions surrounding New Year’s Eve and Day are limited and not from the depths of history. Getting together with party hats and champagne while watching the glittering ball descend in Times Square on TV (recorded three hours earlier, if your celebrating on the West Coast) is not exactly an ancient tradition. True, by American standards it is time-worn since it started in 1907 (not the TV part, which started in 1956), but by British standards that is rather modern. To gain a little age for your New Year’s Eve next party, consider a Hogmanay celebration.
Hogmanay is mainly found in Scotland, although the word might have Manx origins. Then again, it might have French or even Norse ones. Since even the meaning of the word has been lost in the mists of time, take you choice. The first written reference to it comes from 1604, which would indicate it is not from some Celtic festival the way Halloween is from Samhain. Still, it does have three hundred years on the descending ball. Probably the popularity came from the time when the Presbyterian leadership decided that the sometimes-wild holy-day (See the origins of the word holiday?) festivals of Scotland’s Roman Catholic past were unseemly and irreligious, so they banned the celebration of Yule (Christmas). The Scottish populace found a way to still have a party: go a little wild at Hogmanay to celebrate the new year. Since it was no longer tied to a holy day, it became an excuse to tie on. Lest you think it was a wild bacchanalia, certain traditions became attached to it over the years that are quite cool.
In Scotland, often every gets in a circle, crosses arms and holds hands while singing Auld Lang Syne. Obviously this didn’t happen in 1604 since Robert Burns, who wrote Auld Lang Syne, was still a about a century and half away from being born. First-footing is likely the oldest and is followed in places other than Scotland as well. For good luck, a dark-haired man is to cross the threshold at midnight with bread, whisky and coal. The bread can vary, often a pastry-encrusted fruit cake named black bun, and some might swap spirits with the whisky, it is an enduring custom. The gifts represent food, drink and warmth of the hearth, all that is necessary for happiness and wealth for the coming year. Partying oft continues all through January 2nd, a Bank Holiday.
If you are interested in Hogmanay, there are many books and sites devoted to this tradition. So, next year, consider first-footing with friends rather than watching the ball drop in New York on TV. Kilts are optional. Try it, you’ll like it.