New Year Traditions

A couple of days ago I wrote about New Year and Resolutions and when I was responding to comments today I began to think about some of the traditions associated with New Year.

New Year or Hogmanay is celebrated in Scotland with much more enthusiasm than Christmas.  This worked to our advantage when we (a) lived in the UK and (b) went home from New Zealand during our summer holidays.  We could spend Christmas with my family and New Year with my dashing young Scotsman’s family.  Perfect!

Did you know that Christmas was not celebrated in Scotland from the end of the 17th century until the 1950s.  My husband had never celebrated Christmas until we met.

The church apparently banned the celebration labelling it Popish or a Catholic feast.  When I first went to Scotland in about 1957 Christmas Day was considered just another working day.  Their winter solstice holiday was New Year when family and friends gathered for a party and to exchange presents.

All Scottish housewives cleaned house from top to bottom on December 31st (including taking out the ashes from the fire in the days when coal fires were common).  It was also important to clear all your debts before “the bells” at midnight.   I wonder if these superstitions/traditions are still carried on today.

One of the traditions that does still exist is that of First Footing.  A dark stranger has to be the first over the doorstep into the house on January 1 to ensure good luck to the inhabitants for the coming year.  The church bells toll and then First Footing begins.  The dark stranger traditionally arrives with whisky, shortbread and oatcakes.  And when we lived there they also brought coal for the fire and  black bun, a traditional fruit cake covered in pastry.  Sounds strange but it tastes good.

Black Bun

image via Wikipedia

If you are interested and would like to try it – here’s a recipe.

And immediately after midnight it is traditional to sing Robert Burns’ “For Auld Lang Syne”.  Burns published this in 1788 and claimed it was based on an earlier fragment of poetry.  The tune was apparently in print over 80 years before he published his version in 1788.

“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.”

We all sing this song at New Year but what do the words mean?  I was informed many years ago by my Scottish in-laws that auld lang syne meant time gone by.  Auld of course is old.  So try to make some sense of these words if you can.

Whisky and shortbread

Whisky, shortbread and oatcakes for First Footing

The tradition of open house carries on for several days and friends and strangers are welcomed with warm hospitality and a kiss to wish everyone a “Guid New Year” . The underlying belief is to clear out the vestiges of the old year, have a clean break and welcome in a young, New Year on a happy note.

No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference.
It is that from which all date their time, and count upon what is left.
It is the nativity of our common Adam.  ~Charles Lamb

And as someone said – “So there you have it”.

18 responses to “New Year Traditions

  1. Now, that was very interesting…what special traditions.


  2. The tradition of open house sounds wonderful.:-)


  3. Oh Judith, I love this post. It gives so much more meaning to the New Year. And it is fascinating to learn about Scottish customs. I especially liked the part about the “dark stranger” who brings good luck. Your pictures and the recipe are wonderful. This post is really a “keeper”.


    • Hi Dor – it’s generally thought that the dark stranger bringing luck was as opposed to the blonde Vikings who had conquered and over-run Scotland.
      I hope you try that recipe it is really good and brings back happy memories of 8 years lived north of Glasgow in the gentle countryside of Dumbartonshire. 🙂


  4. My husband and I have a special affection for Scotland (which is where he proposed to me.) We’ve gone to Hogmanay in Edinburgh twice. It is a wonderful festival — with a torchlight parade down ancient streets (following a flaming Viking boat, no less), fireworks and a carnival. Wonderful, wonderful fun. And unlike NYC, they have porta-potties!


    • Hah Hogmanay anywhere else but Scotland isn’t the same to me. We lived north of Glasgow for 8 years and I loved the people and their traditions. I guess it helped that I married a Scotsman too. 🙂


  5. How interesting! Thanks for explaining these great, old traditions. I would love to be in Scotland for Hogmanay (or any other, old day, too.)


  6. Wow, Judith. This was so interesting. Thank you for sharing this with us. Seems strange to not celebrate Christmas, yet the commercialism certainly leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
    Love learning about traditions. Really – thank you for this.


  7. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Judith. I love hearing the stories, and how different traditions vary from country to country.


  8. Yes,Judith,the comment was mine and I was telling you how much I enjoyed your post on the Scottish New Year traditions and that it is a compelling post end-to-end.I assume there was an accidental insult or something you didn’t really like.I am so sorry.Of course,I don’t feel like writing again the same things …
    Nevertheless,I will be looking forward to reading about some cherished moments you experienced in Scotland on the 25ths of January …


  9. Oh no. The mistake was mine. I pushed delete permanently when your comment was waiting in the list of comments to be approved. There was certainly nothing you said in your comment to make me want to delete it. So thank you once again and thank you for responding to my query. 🙂


  10. This is fascinating… hadn’t heard of some of it. 😉


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