If that sounds like your ideal New Year’s celebration, then perhaps – Covid permitting – you should head to Scotland to welcome in 2022. Unlike the majority of the United Kingdom, where Christmas is the center of the holiday season, in Scotland, Hogmanay, as the New Year’s celebration is known, has traditionally been the time for celebration.
After the Reformation, the Protestant churches in Scotland effectively banned the celebration of Christmas, claiming it was a Papal feast with no historical relevance. Scottish churches didn’t actively celebrate Christmas until after World War II. So, focusing on New Year’s had long been the alternative since the days of the Viking raiders who celebrated the Winter Solstice. Being the longest night of the year, with extremes of daylight and darkness throughout the world, it was a celebration to start the next cycle of light and darkness with a clean slate.
Among traditions stemming from this celebration became the cleaning of the house on December 31st to ensure everything was ready for the New Year. This included allowing any fires in the house to burn out and be emptied so there were no ashes from the “Old Year” in the house at midnight. Then, once the bells had rung in the New Year, the fire could be lit again, and the next part of the celebration, the “First Foot” could take place.
The First Foot referred to the arrival of the first person to cross the threshold of the house in the New Year. In order to bring the most good luck, the First Footer had to be a tall, dark, and handsome man bearing gifts. These gifts included a piece of coal to represent the fuel for the New Year, whiskey to bring good cheer, shortbread, a black bun (a fruitcake in a pastry case) for sustenance, and finally, salt as the symbol of friendship. Once the gifts had been presented, the gentleman was then rewarded by kisses from all the ladies in the house.
So, why was the gentleman to be tall, dark, and handsome? Again, going back to Vikings, the arrival of a tall, blonde Norseman with an axe – no matter how handsome – was never a good sign. As your author was the blonde, blue-eyed son of a Danish father and a Scottish mother, unfortunately, I never qualified as the First Foot, and therefore missed out on all the kisses.
Sadly, the symbolism behind these traditions is probably no longer considered by many as relevant, and the New Year celebration in Scotland will simply become another excuse for a party, but there is one part of that tradition that I feel is still very important. It seems fitting that we should still cast off the trials and tribulations of the Old Year and simply start afresh in the New Year. So, with that in mind, let me finish by wishing you all a very “Bliadhna Mhath Ùr”, which, if you haven’t guessed, is “A Happy New Year” in Scottish Gaelic.