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The people of Scotland refer to their New Year's Eve celebrations as Hogmanay. For centuries New Year's Eve was the most important midwinter holiday in Scotland, far outstripping Christmas in its importance. Even though Christmas gained a good deal of popularity in the late twentieth century, the Scots still celebrate a festive new year that attracts many visitors to their country.


In the sixteenth century a religious reform movement, the Protestant Reformation, blossomed in northern Europe. In Scotland John Knox (1513-1572), leader of the Scottish Reformation and founder of the Presbyterian Church, opposed all church festivals, as did many of the new Protestant religious leaders. In England and Scotland, a certain group of Protestants known as the Puritans came into political power during the seventeenth century. In their attempt to reform British society they tried to abolish its Christmas celebrations, which they viewed as a disgrace to the Christian religion. After the Puritans fell from power the English returned to many of their old Christmas customs. The people of Scotland, however, took many of the Puritan criticisms of Christmas to heart and never really revived their old Christmas celebrations. Instead, New Year's Day became the main midwinter holiday. In fact, Christmas didn't become a legal holiday again until the second half of the twentieth century.

Daft Days

In Scotland the days surrounding Christmas and New Year's were once called the "daft days" (see also Twelve Days of Christmas). Indeed, the University of Glasgow holds an annual all-night ball on the last Friday of the Christmas term, which is called the "Daft Ball." Some reserve the "Daft Days" as a name for the last day of the old year and the first day of the new year, in reference to the lively customs and sometimes zany behavior that characterize Scottish New Year celebrations.

Origins of the Word "Hogmanay"

The most popular name for the New Year's festival in Scotland, however, is Hogmanay. No one can explain for certain the origins of this word. Linguists suspect that it evolved from the old French term, aguillaneuf, which means New Year's gift, the last day of the year, or the celebration at which New Year's gifts are exchanged. A related Spanish word, aguilnaldo, means Christmas tip, New Year's gift, or, in Latin America, "Christmas carol" (see also Boxing Day).

Many more colorful, but less plausible, origins have been advanced over the years. One early explanation suggested that the word came from the Greek phrase, hagia mana, meaning "holy month." Since it is a bit difficult to explain how the Scots, in the far north of Europe, came to be so influenced by a Greek phrase, another scholar proposed that Hogmanay comes from an old Saxon phrase, halig-mo-nath, meaning "holy month." The difficulty with this theory is that according to the Anglo-Saxon scholar, St. Bede (673?-735), the Saxon holy month fell in September.

Yet another far-fetched theory attributes both Hogmanay and the nonsense word "trololay," which often follows it in song and verse, to a French couplet:

Homme est néTrois rois allois.

It means, "A man is born, three kings are come." Little evidence exists to support the idea that the Scots used or were influenced by this phrase, however.

While some strive to find a Christian meaning for the word, others search for pagan roots. One writer bases his explanation for the phrase on the contention that the ancient Scots worshipped the Scandinavian sun god Thor at the Yule festival that took place around this time of year. He continues by suggesting that they named all sorts of feasts "oels" (or "ales") and that they called the cup of remembrance drunk at the Yule festival "minne." Thus Hogmanay Trololay could have come from an old Scots phrase like,

Hogg minne! Thor oel, oel!

which he translates as, "Remember your sacrifices; The feast of Thor, the Feast!" The problem, again, seems to be finding evidence to support such a claim. Along these same lines, some have suggested that the French word aguillaneuf comes from the phrase au gui l'an neuf, "to the mistletoe the new year," again linking Hogmanay to pagan celebrations. Nevertheless, most scholars reject this explanation of the word.

Visits and Treats

Gift giving, as well as good-luck charms, figured prominently in traditional Scottish New Year celebrations. In past eras children used to go door to door asking neighbors to give them their Hogmanay, which in this context meant gifts of cheese and oat cakes. They chanted old folk rhymes, such as:

Get up good wife and shake your feathers And dinna think that we are beggars, For we are guisers come out to play Get up and gie's our hogmanay.

This rhyme usually accompanied the recitation of a bit of a mummer's play (see also Mumming). Another rhyme works on the listener's sympathy as a means of soliciting a treat:

Ma feet's cauld Ma shoon's thin, Gies ma cakes An'let me rin.

In some places groups of boys called the Gillean Callaig, or Hogmanay Lads, went from door to door carrying sticks, a sack, and an old hide. They recited an old Gaelic folk verse at each house they visited while they used their switches and sticks to beat the animal hide. Then they circled the dwelling place, taking care to move in the same direction as the sun. Householders were then expected to invite the boys in for a treat. Some people added another twist to the custom by bringing the boys inside, singeing a bit of the hide, and wafting the smoke over each family member. All who inhaled the pungent fumes of this purification ritual were supposed to enjoy good health in the coming year, while the boys received a bit of bannock (a coarse oatmeal cake) to take away in their sack. This custom died out in the early twentieth century.


Scottish folklore teaches that the firstfooter, the first person to set foot over the threshold after midnight, determines the household's luck in the new year. Lucky firstfooters possess certain physical qualities. In most regions, a dark-haired, healthy, adult male is considered the luckiest firstfooter. In some places local lore even specifies that he not be flat-footed. Rather than leave the luck of the household to fate, some families arrange for a person with the lucky characteristics to visit them just after midnight. Firstfooters often bring gifts of food, drink, fuel, or money to the homes they visit. These are considered lucky gifts that help to attract the same goods to the household throughout the year. Some people follow a tradition whereby family members remain silent until the firstfooter enters, places his gifts of food and drink on the table, stirs up the fire, and wishes the household and all its members well.

Other Superstitions

Traditional folk beliefs warned that the conditions prevailing in the home on New Year's Eve would be likely to persist throughout the coming year. Therefore, people prepared for New Year's Eve by paying off their debts, returning borrowed items, tuning musical instruments, washing and mending clothes, sheets and blankets, polishing silver and metal goods, winding clocks, cleaning their fireplaces, and emptying out the ashes. Since superstitions warned that stray dogs were portents of evil to come, people often chased away any strays lingering about their homestead.

Other beliefs advised people to collect the "cream of the well," or the "flower of the well." This water, contained in the first bucket to be drawn from the well after midnight on New Year's Eve, was said to be especially sweet and pure. In some places people competed to be the first person to draw it from the well and to gain the luck it was said to impart. People not only drank this water for their health, but also saved some with which to bless their homes and barns.

Many Scots also enacted purification rituals - known as saining - on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day. These rituals involved censing house, barn, family members, and animals with smoke, often juniper smoke. Another common good-luck ritual consisted of opening the door at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve to let the old year out and the new one in. Many people accompanied this action by ringing bells and banging on pots and pans. The noise chased away any evil spirits or influences lurking about the house.

On the island of Orkney, local lore boasts that Stane O'Quoybune, a 4,000-year-old, 12-foot-tall standing stone, walks down to Boardhouse Loch in the early hours of New Year's morning to drink its icy water. Few stay up past midnight to watch for the event, however, since local lore also insists that those who see the stone move will die in the year to come.


The Scots also celebrate the new year by indulging in special foods. One traditional drink, called a het pint, resembles wassail. It is made by mixing ale, spirits, sugar, cloves, nutmeg, coriander, cinnamon, and other spices. Another New Year's Eve concoction, athole brose, is made from oatmeal, cream, honey, and whiskey. Scotch whiskey or tea may also be served. Sowen - oat and bran gruel sweetened with honey or molasses and spiked with whiskey - constitutes a special dish connected with the holiday. Other New Year's foods include oatcakes, cheese, shortbread, black bun (a cake made with dried fruit, almonds, spices, and spirits), and ankersocks (gingerbread made with rye.)


Today many Scots celebrate Hogmanay with parties. These may take place in people's homes, in pubs, or on the streets. In 1993 the city of Edinburgh began its open-air Hogmanay Festival. It has become the largest New Year's Eve party in Europe and it attracts many foreign visitors. This festival has become so popular that the city had to issue passes limiting the number of those who can attend the events to about 180,000. The celebration takes place over the course of three days and includes pop, rock, and folk concerts, dances, street parties, and a torchlight procession ending in a bonfire.

Noise and Song

At midnight on New Year's Eve Scots link arms with the people surrounding them and sing "Auld Lang Syne." This song, whose title means, "Days of Long Ago," is credited to Scotland's most famous poet, Robert Burns (1759-1796). Much noisemaking also takes place at midnight, especially the firing of guns.

Torches, Dancing, and Sports

People all over Scotland celebrate the new year with torchlit processions (see also Up Helly Aa). These usually take place on December 30. People often observe New Year's Eve by attending ceilidhs (pronounced kay-lees), dance parties featuring Scottish bagpiping and other kinds of Celtic music. New Year's Day is frequently marked by a variety of sporting events, including traditional Highland activities such as wrestling, tossing the caber (throwing a long pole) and putting the stone (throwing a heavy disk). Other popular sports include shinty, a game similar to hockey, and curling, a game which involves moving a puck over ice. Group walks are another common New Year's Day activity.

Further Reading

Edwards, Gillian. Hogmanay and Tiffany, The Names of Feasts and Fasts. London, England: Geoffrey Bles, 1970. Gaster, Theodor. New Year, Its History, Customs, and Superstitions. New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1955. Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin. Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia ofWorld Holidays. Volume 4. Detroit, Mich.: UXL, 2000. Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. Livingstone, Sheila. Scottish Festivals. Edinburgh, Scotland: Birlinn, Ltd., 1997. Mackie, Albert. Scottish Pageantry. London, England: Hutchinson, 1967. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Tober, Bruce. "Hogmanay." British Heritage 20, 1 (December 1998-January 1999): 46-50.

Web Site

The city of Edinburgh, Scotland, has posted a web site on its Hogmanay Festival at:
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003

Hogmanay (New Year's Eve in Scotland)

Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: December 31
Where Celebrated: Scotland
Symbols and Customs: Coullin, First-Footing, Last Sheaf or New Year's Wisp, Noisemaking
Related Holidays: New Year's Eve


There are a number of theories about where Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year's Eve celebration, got its name. One is that it came from the Greek hagi mene (Holy Month), but this is considered unlikely. Another, equally unlikely, is that it came from the ancient Scandinavian Yuletide celebration known as Huggunott ("Hoggnight" or "Slaughter Night," since it was customary to sacrifice or slaughter cattle at this time of year), combined with "Mennie," the cup that was drained at the Yule feast. A more likely explanation is that it came from an old French EPIPHANY carol that began, "L'Homme est né, Troi rois là" ("A Man is born, Three Kings are there") which became "Hogmanay, Troleray" in Scotland. Yet another is that it came from hagg, an old Yorkshire word for a wood or coppice. A "hagman" was a woodcutter, and "Hogmanay" was what he called out when he appealed to his customers for some kind of seasonal tip or remembrance.

Scottish children, often wearing a sheet doubled up in front to form a huge pocket, used to call at the homes of the wealthy on this day and ask for the traditional gift of an oatmeal cake. They would call out "Hogmanay!" and recite traditional rhymes or sing songs, in return for which they'd be given their cakes to take home.

Hogmanay was celebrated at a time of year when people needed some assurance that the crops would return in the spring. Just as NEW YEAR'S EVE was an occasion to look both backward and forward, it represented a threshold between death and life in the natural world. The customs associated with Hogmanay suggest a relationship among the seasonal cycle, the agricultural cycle, and the human life cycle.



In the ceremony known as coullin or calluinn, which was traditional in the Scottish Highlands as late as the nineteenth century, young men went from house to house carrying sticks with bits of rawhide attached. One of them wore a cow's hide on his back. Blowing a horn to announce their arrival, they would chase the man wearing the hide around the house three times, beating him on the back and making a sound like a drum. One of the men would then go into the house and pronounce a blessing upon it. Then each man would singe a small piece of the rawhide attached to his stick in the fire on the hearth and apply it to the nose of every person and animal living in the house. This was believed to protect them from diseases and other misfortunes, particularly witchcraft, during the coming year. They also gathered Hogmanay gifts, primarily food, in a bag made of animal skin.

Although it is not certain what the act of beating a cow's hide and making its wearer run around the house represented, many believe it symbolized the continuation of the past year's fertility into the next year. By always keeping the house on their right side as they circled it, the participants in the ceremony were believed to be imitating the course of the sun. Hogmanay


The first visitor of the New Year was an important omen of what the coming year would be like. Many Scottish people living in rural areas still observe the old custom of opening all the doors in the house a minute or two before midnight on December 31 and leaving them open until the clocks have struck the hour-a practice known as "Letting the old year out and the new year in." The first visitor to cross the threshold after the stroke of midnight was known as a "first-foot." It was considered good luck if this first-footer was male, dark-haired, and did not have flat feet.

The first-footer would usually arrive with his or her arms filled with cakes, bread, and cheese for his or her hosts. One of the traditional foods shared with the firstfooter was Hogmanay shortbread. The shortbread was baked in the shape of the sun-perhaps a survival of pagan sun worship. Wisps of straw (see LAST SHEAF OR NEW YEAR ' S WISP ) were another common first-footing gift.

Last Sheaf or New Year's Wisp

Back when wheat, oats, and rye were harvested by hand using sickles, it was customary at the end of the harvest to keep a handful of stalks representing the last sheaf of the harvest. They were divided into three parts and braided, then fastened at the top. The result was often referred to as the calliagh (from the Gaelic meaning hag, old woman, or witch), the "hare" (an animal with supernatural associations, often believed to be an old woman in animal form), or the "churn." The witch or old woman "trapped" in the last sheaf may have represented a pre-Christian fertility goddess or corn spirit. Some clergymen were reluctant to allow these "corn dollies" or decorated calliaghs to be hung in the church as part of the harvest thanksgiving decorations.

At the end of the harvest, the last sheaf was brought back in triumph to the farmhouse and placed around the neck of the master or mistress of the house, who was then obligated to put on a feast. The worker who cut the last sheaf was the guest of honor at this harvest supper. Sometimes the calliagh was placed on the supper table, but more often it was hung over the hearth or door, or on the kitchen wall. If it was placed over the door, the first young woman to enter the house afterward could be kissed by the reapers in a custom similar to that associated with mistletoe at CHRISTMAS. Another superstition was that this young woman was destined to marry the man who had placed the last sheaf over the door.

Last sheaf traditions, which served as an important symbol linking agricultural life with the life of the community and the harvest with human fertility, were common at one time throughout the British Isles and Europe. Sometimes the sheaf would be fed to the livestock or mixed with seeds to be sown the following spring in a gesture designed to symbolize the continuity of life in the midst of winter. If the sheaf was kept in the house, it was considered a charm against bad luck or witchcraft. The use of a braided straw wisp as a typical New Year's gift in Scotland is regarded as a symbolic gesture linking the previous year's harvest to the next year's planting. A sheaf of oats-whether or not it is actually the last sheaf of the harvest-was a common FIRST FOOTING gift.


Blowing horns, beating drums, and firing shotguns is common on Hogmanay. The fact that these same noisemaking activities accompany weddings may indicate that they are related to an ancient fertility ritual. Noise was also believed to frighten off evil spirits, and New Year's Eve was a time when such spirits were believed to be very active.


Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days. 2 vols. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Crippen, T.G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1931. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Hervey, Thomas K. The Book of Christmas. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1888. Santino, Jack. Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994.


City of Edinburgh Council www.edinburghshogmanay.org Hogmanay
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009


December 31
In Scotland and the northern part of England, the last day of the year is known as Hogmanay. There are a number of theories as to where the name comes from—one of them being that it derives from the ancient Scandinavian name for the night preceding the feast of Yule, Hoggu-nott or Hogg-night . Another is that it comes from the French expression, Au gui l'an neuf ("New Year's gift" or "the last day of the year").
Scottish children, often wearing a sheet doubled up in front to form a huge pocket, used to call at the homes of the wealthy on this day and ask for their traditional gift of an oatmeal cake. They would call out, "Hogmanay!" and recite traditional rhymes or sing songs in return for which they'd be given their cakes to take home. It is for this reason that December 31 was also referred to as Cake Day .
Today Hogmanay is celebrated much as is New Year's Eve around the rest of the Western world, with street and house parties. Such fire ceremonies as torchlight processions and lighting New Year's fires are popular traditions as well.
See also First-Foot Day
BkDays-1864, vol. II, p. 788
BkFest-1937, p. 63
BkHolWrld-1986, Dec 31
DictDays-1988, pp. 56, 81, 84
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 181, 499, 791
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 328
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 779
OxYear-1999, p. 541
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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