Back where my people came from, Hogmanay was—and still is—serious business. Although we Scots don’t need much of an excuse to celebrate anything, the ending of one year and the beginning of a new one seems like an awfully good time to throw a week-long bash. The crescendo traditionally comes on December 31 when crowds spill onto the streets of every city and town in the country to parade by torchlight, to dance, to sing, and possibly—just possibly—to enjoy a wee dram or two of that distinctly Scottish elixir, the one we call the ‘water of life,’ all under a brilliant canopy of fireworks. It’s Canada Day, the Fourth of July, and Bastille Day all rolled into one monumental hangover.
There are as many theories about the origins of Hogmanay as there are ways to celebrate it. Some believe it derived from pagan fire celebrations surrounding the winter solstice; some say it was imported from Normandy with the invasion in 1066. Up in the Orkneys, Hogmanay is just a good excuse for men to play ‘Ba,’ a medieval type of rugby played with a large leather ball and absolutely no rules. In the Shetlands, Hogmanay spills into into another local festival called Up Helly Aa which recalls ancient Viking raids on northern Scotland by burning a replica of a longboat. And in one small highland town, Burghead, the locals even discard the Gregorian calendar and celebrate Hogmanay on January 11 by parading the “clavie”—a large barrel filled with wooden staves—through the town before setting it on fire on a nearby hilltop where it burns and smolders for days.
But for all its madness, Hogmanay celebrates the good in people and the hope for a prosperous new year. One of its most hallowed traditions is ‘first-footing’ by which one strives to be the first foot over the threshold of a home just after the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day. A first-footer bears traditional gifts: a silver coin for prosperity, bread for food, salt for flavor, coal for warmth, and, of course, whisky for merriment. It’s as good a way as any to keep last year’s party going well into the new year.
And then there’s that song—the one everyone knows, perhaps even the most-sung song in all the world—‘Auld Lang Syne.’ Originally published in 1788 as a Scots language poem by our beloved Robert Burns, it was set to the music of an old folk tune to fondly recall days gone by. But Auld Lang Syne is more than a song; it’s a celebration of our shared bond, our larger human family. In Scotland, it’s traditionally sung in a large circle facing inward, hands clasped until the beginning of the last verse at which point everyone crosses their arms, turns out, and, still holding hands, sways in time to the music. Maudlin, maybe, but sung in good spirit or spirits, Auld Lang Syne is always a moving hymn to days gone by and the good times we’ve shared together. What could be more appropriate this year!
So for my dear friends back home, I know that seas between us may broad have roared;
For trusty friends here, I give a hand and I take a hand o’ thine;
But for this one day, let’s all tak’ a right gud willie-waught
For auld lang syne!
So say goodbye to rascal 2020 and have a very Happy Hogmanay!
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com