One of the most surprising things about Christmas and New Year in Scotland is that Christmas was not celebrated as a festival and was virtually banned in Scotland for 400 years, from the end of the 17th Century to the 1950s. The reason for this dates back to the years of Protestant Reformation, when the straight-laced Kirk proclaimed Christmas as a Popish or Catholic feast and as such needed banning. In fact Christmas Day was not declared a public holiday until 1954 and Boxing Day became a public holiday in 1974, so at the time of the story there would not have been a Christmas holiday closing of the Mill but just a holiday for New Year’s Day.
It is believed that the Vikings originally brought many of the traditional Hogmanay celebrations to Scotland in the early 8th and 9th Centuries. These Norsemen, or men from an even more northerly latitude than Scotland, paid particular attention to the arrival of the Winter Solstice or the shortest day, and they fully intended to celebrate its passing with some serious partying. In Shetland, where the Viking influence remains the strongest, New Year is still called Yules, deriving from the Scandinavian word for the midwinter festival of Yule.
The origin of the name Hogmanay is not clear. It may have been introduced to Naval Lord Middle via French. The most commonly cited explanation is a derivation from the northern French dialectal word hoguinané, or variants such as hoginane, hoginono and hoguinettes, those being derived from 16th century Middle French aguillanneuf meaning either a gift given at New Year, a children’s cry for such a gift, or New Year’s Eve itself.
Other people think the origins may have been from Gaelic (Goidelic) and yet others reject both the French and Goidelic theories, and instead suggest that the ultimate source both for the Norman French, Scots, and Goidelic variants of this word have a common Norse root. It is suggested that the full forms invoke the hill-men (Icelandic haugmenn cf Anglo-Saxon hogmen or elves and banishes the trolls into the sea (Norse a lae “into the sea”.)
There are a number of traditions and superstitions that have to be taken care of before midnight on the 31st December. These include cleaning the house and taking out the ashes from the fire, there is also the requirement to clear all your debts before “the bells” sound midnight, otherwise you will be in debt all year.
Immediately after midnight, it is traditional to sing Robert Burns “Auld lang Syne”. Burns published his version of this popular little ditty in 1788, although the tune was in print over 80 years before this.
“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.”
One of the chief parts of the Hogmanay party, which is still continued with equal enthusiasm today, is to welcome friends and strangers with warm hospitality and of course lots of enforced kissing for all.
‘First footing’ (or the first foot in the house after midnight) is still a common tradition across Scotland today. To ensure good luck for the house the first foot should be a dark male and he should bring with him symbolic pieces of coal, shortbread, salt, black bun and a wee dram of whisky. The dark male part is believed to be a throwback to the Viking days, when a big blonde stranger arriving on you doorstep with a large axe meant trouble and would not have been auspicious for a happy New Year.