31st December, the last night of the year in the Western calendar, is celebrated in many places, but nowhere more enthusiastically than in Scotland. The Scots even have their own word for this festival, shunning the pedestrian New Year’s Eve for the Scots word Hogmanay.
The etymology of Hogmanay is complicated, but it is believed to be French in origin, coming ultimately from the Old French aguillanneuf, meaning ‘last day of the year’ or ‘new year’s gift’. This makes perfect sense in view of the auld alliance, the traditional alliance between the kingdoms of France and Scotland before the latter became joined to England through the ascension of King James VI of Scotland to the English throne as James I in 1603.
There are several traditions associated with Hogmanay, including first footing, which involves visiting friends and neighbours as soon as the New Year starts, often bearing gifts that may include whisky, shortbread, coal (for good luck) and black bun (a type of fruit cake). Tall dark men are particularly prized as first footers, as they are supposed to bring the greatest amount of luck. Hogmanay is celebrated so enthusiastically that Scots have an extra day off to recover, 2nd January being an additional bank holiday just in Scotland.
Another tradition that has spread far beyond Scotland is the singing of Auld Lang Syne as midnight strikes. This traditional song, with words rewritten by Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns, urges us to remember old friends for old time’s sake, and those singing it frequently link arms to emphasize these sentiments.
And so now it seems appropriate to wish old friends and new a very happy and healthy New Year!
Browse the archive of Stories behind Words and get in touch if you’d like to suggest a word/phrase for the series. We’d love to hear from you!Email this Post