I have a dear friend who hails from Scotland, and over the course of our friendship, he has regaled me with many a story from the homeland. One of the more lively is his commentary on the New Year traditions.
In Scotland, the New Year is referred to as Hogmanay, a word which may have derived from the Gaelic, French or Anglo-Saxon languages. The holiday has special importance in Scotland, as the church virtually banned the celebration of Christmas from the late seventeenth century until 1958, stating that it had no biblical basis.
Winter’s cold and darkness, and the region’s flair for good whisky encouraged end-of-year revelry, and Hogmanay became an institution. Bonfires to shed light, clearing of old debts to start the year fresh, and the singing of Auld Lang Syne are standard customs, as is the practice of First Footing.
After the stroke of midnight, neighbors visit one another, and give and receive traditional symbolic gifts. Historically, those would include coal – to ensure a warm house, salt – representing flavor, a coin – prosperity, and shortbread or fruitcake – sweetness. These days, shortbread and whisky are the staples, and as my friend tells it, shortbread and whisky make for an epic hangover. Luckily, Jan 2nd is also a holiday.
The tradition of First Footing is rooted in ancient customs. It is believed that the first person to enter one’s house brings good or bad luck. In Scotland, it is preferred that the first foot across the threshold belong to a dark haired male. The fear that a fair-haired person brings bad luck perhaps harkens back to Viking times, when having a flaxen-haired Saxon arrive at your door was always a bad thing. The Viking in me apologizes, and in penance, I offer my brown sugar shortbread recipe here. (Note: Traditional shortbread shapes are half-inch thick rectangles. Adjust cooking time a bit longer.)
A very Happy New Year to you… may it bring you delight, promise, and love.
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot and auld lang syne
For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne,
We’ll take a cup o kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”