Although the well known Scottish tradition of Hogmanay (originally a type of three cornered, biscuit) is celebrated on New Year's Eve, its origins are age old and grounded in Celtic culture. Despite the long association with the Scots, Hogmanay is not a Scottish custom but practiced, all over Europe. The following is a brief outline of Hogmanay, custom and practice.
Hogmanay was first recorded in 1604 in the Elgin Records as hagmonay (delatit to haue been singand hagmonayis on Satirday) and again in 1692 in an entry of the Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence, "It is ordinary among some plebeians in the South of Scotland to go about from door to door upon New-years Eve, crying Hagmane." Etymology of hogmanay remains obscure and may arise from a French, Norse or a Goidelic (Insular Celtic) root.
The Festival of the Dead
In the old Celtic calendar, New Year fell on the 1st November and was called Samhain. This was an unreal time, when one year turned into another. A twilight zone where spirits of the dead and those not yet born walked freely among the living. It was a time of plenty as the stocks were returned from the hills before the severe winter ahead and a great time for kinship as the hill dwellers came to the gathering. The celebration of the dead is found throughout the Celtic and Hispanic world and lasts from Halloween to New Year.
Samhain was a time where darkness of night was thought to prevail over the lightness of day. Lun the Sun God was defeated by his darker side and became the Lord of Misrule. Good people needed the comfort of their own kind and protection from the evil forces of the dark. Much of the sacred symbolism of Samhaimn can be found in the customs of Halloween and Hogmanay.
In the New Year many cultures believed the first foot to cross the threshold brought the house good fortune for the coming year. "First footing" is an ancient custom and tradition demands the first person to pass the threshold must be a sonsy (trustworthy), a stranger of dark complexion and full head of hair, carry a lucky talisman. It was considered very unlucky to have a first fit who was a person with fair complexion. Suspicious people refuse to leave their home until they were first footed.
Bearing gifts echoes the 8th Century beliefs of the Vikings that good luck charms made the New Year a thriving one. Black bun (pastry covered rich current bun), and wassail (hot toddy) represent food and sustenance for the coming year. The coal symbolized good luck and prosperity.
In the Isle of Man (UK) a good first footer was a man of good appearance and dark complexion with in-steps high enough to allow a mouse to run through. The significance of the arched foot remains unclear but early Christians believed men were made in the image of God and the Christian Foot had a perfect arch. Flat feet or splayed feet were considered the sign of evil and hence unlucky omens.
The Evil Foot
Functional feet were important to the early Christians as walking was the only means to spread the Gospel. Subsequently well formed feet became associated with joy and happiness. Literature abounds with reference to this. Prior to modern medicine illness and deformity were regarded as a form of demonic possession. Many contagious diseases of the time left deformities like flat feet.
After the Bells
First footing remains a strong tradition in rural areas. The modern interpretation is after hearing the Bells of the New Year ring, friends visit each other's homes sharing goodwill and treating them to intoxicating liquor. The Celts held alcohol in very high esteem and was an important part of ritual. In the past first footing had practical purpose to small communities which allowed everyone in the village to meet the New Year with good cheer and d more importantly be able to leave their abode after being first footed.
New Year’s Family Dinner
In Scotland families gather on Ner’day (New Year‘s Day) and feast like the traditional Christmas Day. This represents the modern “gathering of the clans.” Certain foods are thought to bring good fortune for the New Year. These include a thick and tasty bowl of Scotch broth: Steak pie and a Clootie dumpling (a sweet fruit pudding). It is not uncommon in Celtic tradition to have an extra place set at table for unexpected guests.
Auld Lang Syne
Auld Land Syne is a traditional air given lyrics by Robert Burns but this was not traditionally sang at Hogmanay until the 20th century after it was played at a New Year celebration in New York. The song and sentiment expressed was perfect for the occasion and have been associated ever since.