Hogmanay is the term for the Scottish New Year celebrations that for many take precedence over Christmas. This is partly due to the fact that Christmas Day was seen as a working day in Scotland until the 1960s/70s. It has been said that Christmas is England’s holiday and Scotland’s is the New Year. Living in northern Scotland (having last lived in London) I see the difference. I am more aware of the seasons and the impact they have on day to day living, of the value of the solstice marking the shift from darkness to light. In Scotland Hogmanay is often celebrated with fire – fireballs, bonfires, fireworks – all illuminating the darkness, offering light and hope for the year to come.
Both New Year's Day and January 2 are holidays in Scotland, a fact I hadn’t appreciated when I first moved up here. Born in England I was used to the country creaking back to work on January 2, not taking another day to recover from celebrations that could last 24 hours or more.
You may have heard of First Footing – Scots welcoming the first person to enter the house once new year dawns. Traditionally, offering good luck, this will be a dark haired man bearing gifts such as coal, shortbread or whisky.
In Stonehaven, near Aberdeen, fireballs welcome the new year in – huge, whirling fires that dance around their owners, their management taking strength and skill. The ceremony draws thousands of tourists each year and as with Highland Games provides opportunity for gatherings of family and friends who have travelled further afield.
Biggar’s Hogmany bonfire has laid claim to being “bigger” than any other. The tradition was even carried on in wartime by using a tin with a candle in it to replace the bigger bonfire the residents normally used to welcome in the New Year.
In Kirkwall, Orkney, Christmas and New Year herald the Ba’ Game – a huge street game with up to 100 players per side, with teams aiming to get the ball either up or down the town. A massive scrum welcomes the ball in to play, a scrum whose shape is changed by the game that follows, depending on whether a player escapes with the ball, whether it moves into narrower sidestreets or alleys or stays at the centre of a heaving mass of players.
Hogmanay’s traditions and customs pay homage to far older celebrations including Saturnalia (Roman), Yule (Germanic) and ancient fire festivals which celebrated life, love and light.