Hogmanay is a Scottish New Year’s tradition. (Photo submitted by Mary Lowther)

Hogmanay bigger than Christmas for one Scottish family

For Mom, Hogmanay was the Big Day.

By Mary Lowther

Hogmanay: (known south of Hadrian’s Wall as New Year’s Day)

First I need to confess that my mother was Hielands Scots. Unless ye ken that, this tale makes nae sense at all, for without the gift of a guid Scots mother ye wouldnae know of Hogmanay.

In fact, I’m not sure I should be telling the Sassenachs these things, but Mom never told me they were secret, and besides, given her own inability to keep one, she certainly shouldn’t expect me to. She just told me that Hogmanay was an ancient tradition with origins shrouded in the mists of time with rituals passed down through millennia that were still celebrated when she was a wee bairn in Perth. For Mom it was the most important day of the year, more fun than Christmas. That wasn’t saying much, though, because she was lucky to get an orange in her stocking. Scotland was a depressed nation even during the Roaring Twenties so, as Mom put it 70 years later, “We barely noticed the change when the thirties got dirty.”

For Mom, Hogmanay was the Big Day. On Hogmanay the children would lay awake, listening for the First Footers, bands of “guisers,” young men who knocked on the door after midnight. Her parents invited them in for a wee tot of whiskey and a piece of shortbread, making sure that the first person who crossed their threshold was not fair haired. After a bit of talk these youthful First Footers said goodbye and moved on to the neighbours to continue the festivities. On Hogmanay the Scots literally refined the art of trick or treating to its logical, single malt extreme.

“Why couldn’t the first person who came in be blonde?” I asked her, “And why do you call it Hogmanay?”

“I don’t know,” Mom confessed. “I never asked.”

I suppose I inherited my curiosity gene from my father. At any rate, I determined there and then to delve into the roots of Hogmanay and teach my mom about her heritage.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Hogmanay has survived as a remnant of the prechristian Yule holy day. The name now applies to the sweets and drink distributed to the First Footers, as well as the kissing my Mom never told me about, but older sources say the name derives from the hogmanay, a beef strip torn from the hide of the fattened winter cow. Once the cow was killed, its hide was removed and the young men of the village tore a strip from it with their bare hands and teeth because a knife was anathema to the good luck they were about to bring to their neighbours.

David wonders how the hide can bring us luck when it obviously brought none to the winter cow, just as the rabbit’s foot brought no luck to its original owner. How can a man who studies history and drinks his morning tea from Royal Doulton have so little respect for tradition?

Unconcerned by heathen nitpicking, the celebrants stuck the strip on a pointed stick, covered one of their number with the rest of the hide and gave him the stick to carry. How this doubtful honour was awarded seems lost in time, but I prefer to think that it was much sought after, since the first through the door would be the first to eat drink and make merry.

Having selected their leader, the happy mob then trotted over to the first house and ran around it from east to west, following the path the sun took, and “knocked up” the family who let them in. Once inside, the beef strip was held over a candle until the fur smoldered and then was passed under the welcoming nostrils of the family, who were then imbued with good health imparted from the cow who had no more need for it.

As to why the first First Footer must be dark haired, I had to learn about the Viking raids on Scotland. These fair haired invaders were feared so much that even 12 centuries later the descendants of Scottish survivors are loath to allow a possible Viking across their threshold. Resentment runs deep in the Scottish breast.

Hoping to impress her, I shared this new knowledge with my mom, but she didn’t believe me. I can’t blame her though; her mother was blonde.

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