5 Scottish Hogmanay Traditions You Probably Never Heard Of

Celebrations, Fire Festivals and Hospitality Welcome the New Year

Edinburgh Hogmanay
••• Never wanting to miss a good party, "Vikings" usually turn out in force for Edinburgh Hogmanay. Robert Ricciuti/Getty Images

Hogmanay is Scotland's New Year's celebration. But did you know that it's a three to five day blast with a bunch of weird and wild, ancient traditions?

As Christmas festivities wind down all over the United Kingdom, the really spectacular parties in Scotland are just getting underway. 

Why this big national party is called Hogmanay is anybody's guess. It has been attributed to similar sounding combinations of worlds in the Viking language Old Norse, in French, in Gaelic, even in Flemish.

None of that, of course, effects the enormous public New Year's events (the biggest and most famous in Edinburgh) that light up cities and towns all over the country.

And, alongside the celebrations, street festivals, entertainment and wild - occasionally terrifying - fire festivals, people still practice rituals and traditions that go back for hundreds - maybe thousands - of years. Here are five you may not be familiar with.

Five Hogmanay Traditions

Besides concerts, street parties, fireworks and more earthbound fire spectaculars, as well as consumption of one of Scotland's most famous products, Scotch whisky, a number of very ancient traditions associated with Hogmanay in Scotland can still be found in smaller communities and private celebrations:

  1. Redding the House - Like the annual spring cleaning in some communities, or the ritual cleaning of the kitchen for Passover, families traditionally did a major cleanup to ready the house for the New Year. Sweeping out the fireplace was very important and there was a skill in reading the ashes, the way some people read tea leaves. And, at a time of year when fire plays a huge part in celebrations, it's only natural to bring a bit of it into the house. After the big cleanup, someone goes from room to room carrying a smoking juniper branch to discourage evil spirits and chase away disease. 
  1. First Footing After the stroke of midnight, neighbors visit each other, bearing traditional symbolic gifts such as shortbread or black bun, a kind of fruit cake. The visitor, in turn, is offered a small whisky. A friend of mine who remembers first footing, also remembers that if you had a lot of friends, you'd be offered a great deal of whisky. The first person to enter a house in the New Year, the first foot, could bring luck for the whole year to come. The luckiest was a tall, dark and handsome man. The unluckiest a red head and the unluckiest of all a red-haired woman (so I guess I'd better wait until last myself).
  1. Bonfires and Fire Festivals Scotland's fire festivals at Hogmanay and later in January may have pagan or Viking origins. The use of fire to purify and drive away evil spirits is an ancient idea. Fire is at the center of Hogmanay celebrations in Stonehaven, Comrie and Biggar and has recently become an element in Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebration.
  2. The Singing of Auld Lang Syne All over the world, people sing Robert Burns' version of this traditional Scottish air. How it became the New Year's song is something of a mystery. At Edinburgh's Hogmanay, people join hands for what is reputed to be the world's biggest Auld Lang Syne.
  3. The Saining of the House This is a very old rural tradition that involved blessing the house and livestock with holy water from a local stream. Although it had nearly died out, in recent years it has experienced a revival. After the blessing with water, the woman of the house was supposed to go from room to room with a smoldering juniper branch, filling the house with purifying smoke (there's that smoldering juniper branch again). Of course, this being a Scottish celebration, traditional mayhem was sure to follow. Once everyone in the household was coughing and choking from the smoke, the windows would be thrown open and reviving drams (or two or three) of whisky would be passed around.

    Why is Hogmanay so important to the Scots

    Although some of these traditions are are ancient, Hogmanay celebrations were elevated in importance after the banning of Christmas in the 16th and 17th centuries. Under Oliver Cromwell, Parliament banned Christmas celebrations in 1647. The ban was lifted after Cromwell's downfall in 1660. But in Scotland, the stricter Scottish Presbyterian Church had been discouraging Christmas celebrations - as having no basis in the Bible, from as early as 1583. After the Cromwellian ban was lifted elsewhere, Christmas festivities continued to be discouraged in Scotland. In fact, Christmas remained a normal working day in Scotland until 1958 and Boxing Day did not become a National Holiday until much later.

    But the impulse to party, and to put the products of Scotland's famous distilleries to good use, could not be repressed.

    In effect, Hogmanay became Scotland's main outlet for the mid-winter impulse to chase away the darkness with light, warmth and festivities.