Anyone else think New Year’s Eve traditions here in the U.S. are kind of uninspired? Let’s see. . . Fall asleep on couch watching Dick Clark’s countdown (now featuring what’s-his-face). Wake up at 11.59 PM to watch ball drop. Take swig of “champagne.” Fall back asleep.
If you’re feeling really ambitious, you can jet to NYC and catch the Times Square action in person, which entails freezing your butt off for eight hours with a million strangers and no place to pee.
For many of us, the holiday is simply an excuse to party way too hard. Hmm, let’s kick off the new year with an epic hangover and probably some regrets about the night before. So much for that fresh start!
This year, mix things-up and celebrate Hogmanay instead. Hogma-what, you say?
Hogmanay is how Scotland does New Year’s Eve. Cleaning and baking, hospitality, symbolic gifts, superstition, fire ceremonies (!), and good-natured merriment are all part of the fun.
Scotland’s unique focus on New Year’s is tied to its formerly strained relationship with Christmas, which the Church of Scotland banned way back in 1560 – a prohibition lasting 400 years.
In the absence of Christmas, Hogmanay stepped-in as Scotland’s major midwinter celebration. Until Christmas finally became a national holiday in 1958, Scottish laborers were off New Year’s Day, while Christmas was a regular working day.
Today, Hogmanay has kind of taken a backseat to Christmas and some traditions are watered-down, but it’s still lively and unmistakably Scottish.
Here are 7 ways YOU can celebrate Hogmanay:
1. Clean (really, it’ll feel great)
Don’t make your house wait until spring. Before letting your hair down for the night, bust out the Comet and scrub away the old year (plus all that Christmas detritus). Traditionally, Scottish housewives got the house tip top before Hogmanay, polishing furniture, washing and ironing linens, even making sure bills were paid-up.
Sure, a deep house cleaning is time-consuming and tedious, but it also can be rejuvenating, therapeutic even. Think of it as a ritual cleansing to prepare for a new, transformational year.
If, like me, you’re not particularly skilled in this art form, here are some practical tips.
I know, by New Year’s you’re probably ready to the ditch the cookie sheets and stand mixer for awhile. But, you’ll need some buttery shortbread for any first footers (see number #5) that swing by after midnight.
If you’re a fan of The Great British Baking Show, you’ll know the Brits – Scots included – take baking seriously. Scottish shortbread in its purest form is a wonderfully simple, crumbly mixture of butter, sugar, and flour.
You can also up the flavor factor by layering on chocolate and caramel – voilà, you’ve got millionaire’s shortbread, a decidedly more decadent treat. Maybe not the most traditional, but trust me, no one will complain.
If you really can’t face more baking, Walkers Shortbread is Scottish-made and commonly found in U.S. supermarkets. Just look for the explosion of tartan (i.e. plaid) in the cookie aisle.
3. Light a fire
Fire festivals prevail in Scotland year-round, especially at the winter solstice, when fire has long-marked passing of the year’s darkest day and the sun’s rebirth.
At Hogmanay, these bursts of pyromania range from simple torchlight processions to a ceremony in which paraders swing large fireballs around their heads before flinging them into the sea.
Since staging an elaborate fire show isn’t always practical, an outdoor fire pit is a simple but effective substitute. Failing that or a fireplace, even just some candles scattered about should be enough to channel your inner pagan.
4. Sing Auld Lang Syne
Auld Lang Syne has a prominent yet simultaneously vague association with New Year’s Eve in the U.S. You know the tune, an instrumental version is played briefly in Times Square after the big countdown (a tradition since 1929). And of course there’s the powerful, tear-jerking rendition at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, a classic Christmas movie.
With lyrics penned in 1788 by Scottish poet Robert Burns, “auld lange syne” is generally translated as “times gone by” in English. While singing this ode to past friendships on Hogmanay, Scots often form a circle with fellow revelers, link arms, stomp their feet, and do a fun little dance-y thing.
So this New Year’s, don’t just cluelessly hum along. Google the lyrics, join arms with your loved ones, and belt it out.
5. Go First Footing
Here’s where the fun really starts. After midnight, visit a friend or neighbor bearing symbolic offerings of whiskey, bread, and coal. As the first person to cross the threshold in the new year, or “first footer,” you and your gifts will bring good luck to the home (especially if you’re a tall, dark and handsome male, as superstition goes). If practical, knock on another door or two. Unless you have really grouchy neighbors, you and your gifts will be pleasant surprises.
But . . .
Don’t stay out too long – you need to be home soon to greet your own first footers (this obviously requires advance invites outside Scotland). To prepare, tray-up that shortbread you baked earlier, pour some whisky and cordial, and stream Scottish Traditional Radio on Pandora. Greet visitors with warmth and hospitality.
In other words, eat, drink, and be merry.
6. Eat steak pie
What could be better on a frigid New Year’s Day than eating savory beef stew? Eating beef stew in a pie. Yep, Scottish-style steak pie essentially is a beef version of chicken pot pie, and it’s delicious. While Scots can hit their local butcher for this New Year’s specialty, you’ll probably need to improvise.
7. Play hookie on January 2
Well, we saved the best for last. In Scotland, New Year’s officially extends to January 2, when schools, banks, and most offices remain closed each year. Use that extra day to really commit yourself to the year ahead, to making it better for you and your community. Or, save that until January 3 and just keep the couch toasty for one more day.
Oh wait, one more thing:
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can fly to Scotland and experience real deal Hogmanay firsthand.
But I’ve gotta be honest, if this might be your only trip to Scotland, I’d avoid this time of year. Winter weather in Scotland blows, literally. I lived there for a few years, so I know. Brutal wind and horizontal rain seem to be the norm, not the exception, on New Year’s. Plus, winter days are insanely short (Scotland is surprisingly far north on the globe).
Late spring and early summer, on the other hand, are magical. Sunshine intermixed with soft rain, daylight stretching until 11 PM, gardens in full glory, festivals galore. But that’s a post for another time.
Whatever your plans, have a safe and happy new year.