Have Yourself a Happy Hogmanay


The Scottish Hogmanay Fireball custom
The Scottish Hogmanay Fireball custom

Scots celebrate the last day of the calendar year in a festival known as Hogmanay.

In northeastern Scotland a local custom is the annual swinging of the fireball. This involves local people making up ‘balls’ of chicken wire filled with old newspaper, sticks, rags, and other dry flammable material up to a diameter of 2 feet, each attached to about 3 feet of wire, chain or nonflammable rope.

In Stonehedge, Aberdeenshire, as the Old Town House bell sounds to mark the new year, the balls are set alight and the swingers set off up the High Street, swinging the burning balls around their heads as they go. At the end of the ceremony, any fireballs that are still burning are cast into the harbor.

Traditions vary from community to community. In the east coast fishing communities and Dundee, the first person to enter a house each year commonly brought along a decorated herring while in Falkland in Fife, local men marched in torchlight procession to the top of the Lomond Hills as midnight approached. Bakers in St. Andrews baked special cakes for their Hogmanay celebration (known as ‘Cake Day’) and distributed them to local children. In Glasgow and the central areas of Scotland, the tradition is to hold Hogmanay parties that involve singing, dancing, eating of steak pie or stew, storytelling and drink.

Institutions also had their own traditions. For example, amongst the Scottish regiments, officers waited on the men at special dinners while at the bells, the Old Year is piped out of barrack gates. The sentry then challenges the new escort outside the gates: “Who goes there?” The answer is, “The New Year, all’s well.”

An old custom in the Highlands, which has survived to a small extent and seen some degree of revival, is to celebrate Hogmanay with the saining (Scots for ‘protecting, blessing’) of the household and livestock. Early on New Year’s morning, householders drink and then sprinkle “magic water” from a river ford that is routinely crossed by both the living and the dead. After the sprinkling of the water in every room, on the beds and all the inhabitants, the house is sealed up tight and branches of juniper are set on fire and carried throughout the house and barn. The juniper smoke is allowed to thoroughly fumigate the buildings until it causes sneezing and coughing among the inhabitants. Then all the doors and windows are flung open to let in the cold, fresh air of the new year. The woman of the house then administers “a restorative” from the whisky bottle, and the household sits down to its New Year breakfast.

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