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Our View: Happy Hogmanay

In Scotland, the New Year rings in with a rousing party and celebration of friendship

Hogmanay is not some weird pig roast. It’s the Scottish New Year, and it is celebrated with more fervor than Christmas in Scotland and particularly in Edinburgh.

Scotland’s world famous and raucous New Year celebrations originate from the fact that Christmas in Scotland was banned after the Reformation of 1640 though it is celebrated in the Scotland of today. There are several Hogmanay traditions, but the most famous is called first-footing.

The first-footer is the first person to cross the threshold of your home after midnight entering the New Year. Ideally, to bring good fortune, the first-footer should be a tall, dark-haired male. This tradition derives from the numerous Viking invasions of Scotland which, of course, brought fair-haired individuals to your door. This dark-haired male “cannae” come empty-handed. The first-footer would bring a lump of coal for the host’s fire along with shortbread, a black bun and a wee dram of whisky to toast a Happy New Year. I occasionally practice first-footing in my neighborhood and make a point of visiting new neighbors to welcome them. To not bring gifts would not only be rude but would bring bad luck as well. I bring the important gifts; shortbread and whisky or sometimes just the whisky.

Scots know how to party. Most Scots believe that a Scottish funeral is livelier than an Irish wedding and that Scots know how to put the “fun” back in a funeral. I need to tread lightly here as my spouse is Irish. Seventy-five thousand to a 100,000 people will party in the streets of Edinburgh for up to six hours. Fireworks, fire-eaters, flaming torches, fireballs, bands, street performers, acrobats, music and ceilidh dancing are some of the regular festivities seen on one of the oldest streets, the Royal Mile.

The thistle is a hero in Scottish lore.

This procession passes by Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s Scottish residence. Ceilidh (pronounced kaylee) means party, and the dances are traditional with much hootin’ and hollerin’. Of course, the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” occurs at midnight usually while holding hands in a circle. At the beginning of the last verse, people cross their arms across their chest so that their right hand reaches out to the next person on their left and vice versa. Everyone rushes to the middle of the circle as the tune ends. The song written by Scotland’s bard Robert Burns (roll your r’s) is perhaps the most sung tune in the English language worldwide.

Rather than a spring cleaning, the Scots have a New Year’s cleaning called Redding the House. Starting the New Year with a dirty house would also bring bad luck. Ideally, all debts should be cleared as well, but I sense that the house cleaning is the more important of the two.

If you decide to celebrate Hogmanay in the Scottish way this year, there is one more tradition you may need. It is called the Loony Dook. (loony for crazy and dook means dip or bathe) This part of the celebration takes place on New Year’s Day and consists of jumping into the icy water of the Firth of Forth. The Animas River will have to do. You will need the stirring sound of bagpipes to urge you on so perhaps call the local Westwind Pipe Band. This tradition started out as an attempt by Scots to find a hangover cure and now draws people from all over the world.

So, there you have it. Don’t forget the haggis and the national flower of Scotland, which is a thistle. The thistle is a hero in Scottish lore. Legend says that a sneaky, nocturnal, invading barefoot Dane stepped on one and cried out in pain. The cry awakened the Scottish army, which then repelled the invaders. All hail the mighty thistle.

Give these a try or just start your own traditions. Your very own Festivus for the Rest of Us.