Glasgow, United Kingdom. 15th November 2012 -- Fireworks shoot off as the Christmas lighst are switched on. -- The countdown to Glasgows official Christmas celebrations is underway as the spectacular Christmas lights switch-on is unveiled in George Square. Around 15,000 people have secured a free golden ticket. Anthony Brawley—Demotix/Corbis


By Jane Forsyth

The next time for real celebration is New Year’s Eve or Hogmanay as it is known in Scotland. In England this used to be fairly low-key, with people sometimes celebrating with their families and maybe a few friends, with fireworks in the garden at midnight. These days it has grown to big public fireworks displays, although these are unlikely in 2020!


Hogmanay is regarded by some in Scotland as a bigger celebration than Christmas. The name is thought is thought to have derived from one of three sources:

  • It is first recorded in dictionaries after Mary Queen of Scots’ returned to Scotland from France in 1561 and may come from the French word ‘hoginane’ – gala day.
  • It could come from the Anglo-Saxon ‘haleg monath’ meaning holy month.
  • There may also be a Scandinavian influence with the expression ‘hoggo-nott’, meaning yule.

The reason for Hogmanay being regarded in Scotland as the bigger celebration than Christmas are  historical religious conflicts over whether Christians should mark Christmas Day. Christmas was virtually banned in Scotland for about 400 years. During the Reformation, in the 16th Century, Protestants, especially the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, discouraged the celebration of a ‘Catholic festival’ which had no justification in the Bible, saying the link to 25 December is wrong and Christ and early Christians did not celebrate anything that could be described as Christmas.

Nowadays, Hogmanay is probably still the most important festival of the year to the Scots! It is seen as the time of change from old to new. It is the day on which you cleaned your house and paid all your debts and tidied up all your affairs. It was also a popular time to get married.

Piece of coal

My memories are of preparing festive food, such as tiny sandwiches and sausage rolls, together with the ‘black bun’ ready for the arrival of visitors after midnight.We then used to go out in a group of friends, often to a dance in the local hall. At midnight everyone wished everyone else a happy new year and then we walked around the streets stopping to say the same thing to everybody we met. The ‘boys’ would carry a piece of coal or firewood and a bottle (whisky) in their pockets and this would be passed around, which was probably not very hygienic, but I cannot recall anyone being ill with it afterwards. Maybe the alcohol killed the germs!

When we came to the house of someone we knew we would call in for a drink and something to eat. If the ‘boy’ with us was dark and the first person arriving after midnight they would give the host the coal or firewood with the wish “lang may your lumb reek”! This is called “First Footing”. A first footer is the first guest to arrive at a home after midnight, and traditionally  should be a tall dark stranger carrying gifts – a lump of coal, salt, shortbread, black bun and whisky


This probably dates from the time of the Vikings when the arrival of a blond stranger at your door would be the cause of fear.

The gifts were wishes for the new year to come; coal for heat, salt as a symbol of friendship, whisky for hospitality, and the shortbread and black bun symbolised good food all year.

Traditionally, hospitality is referred to as sharing bread and salt and this is why so much outrage surrounds the Massacre of Glencoe. Bread and salt had been shared and it was taboo to do anything that harmed that gesture of friendship.

Fire is an important feature of Hogmanay because it purifies things. The use of fire comes from pagan rituals symbolising the Sun during short, dark winter days. The popularity of setting off fireworks at New Year can be traced back to this idea, and there are many traditions related to fire. In Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire there is a fireball ceremony where people swing chicken wire-wrapped balls of burning coal, wood and fir cones down the High Street.

In Allendale in Northumberland men parade through the streets in fancy dress, carrying barrels of flaming tar on their heads. After processing round the village they return to the square at midnight and throw their barrels onto the waiting bonfire to ignite it, to welcome in the New Year.

It is considered quite normal to arrive home again at say, 6.00 a.m. following the Hogmanay celebrations!

New Year 's day lunch pheasant

Yet mothers always insisted that we get up and eat the New Year’s Day lunch, which traditionally would be of pheasant, although sometimes the amount of whisky we had taken prevented us from feeling very hungry!

Then we all used to go to a nearby village for a New Year’s ceilidh in the evening.

It used to be the British tradition to continue to celebrate every day throughout the next days until 12th Night, although I know nobody who could afford this now.  It is considered good luck to eat a mince pie on each of the 12 days as refusal brought bad luck.

It is the Yorkshire tradition to eat the local Wenslydale cheese with the remains of the Christmas cake. It is also considered bad luck if you do not remove your Christmas decorations before 6th January (Epiphany Christ’s baptism day). So the Eve of the Epiphany or Twelfth Night is the traditional time to do it

Jon Sullivan

On 12th Night itself a Twelfth Night cake would be eaten. This contained a bean in one half and a dried pea in the other. The bean half was cut up into the number of pieces which would give every male in the household a share. The pea half was also cut in the same way to give a share to every female. The finders of the bean and the pea were king and queen for the night.

The final ritual of the new year takes place on the last Tuesday of January in Lerwick for the biggest annual fire festival, called Up Helly AA. This marks the rising of the sun again and the end of the Yule-tide period.

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