A Brief Guide To Hogmanay

A Brief Guide To Hogmanay

Hogmanay - A Scottish New Year's Eve

In Scotland the biggest celebration of the holiday season is not Christmas itself but New Year's Eve. This celebration is known as Hogmanay and can last as late as the 4th of January. The official holidays vary depending where in the week New Year's falls.

There's little scholarly agreement on the origins of the celebration. The oldest written references only go back as far as the 17th century. They mention Hogmanay in passing as something too well known to require explanation, so it's likely the festivities had already been enjoyed for centuries by then. The origin of the word itself is also controversial. Academics have proposed Gaelic, French and Norse roots, with none of the three camps enjoying universal support.


The theme of renewal underpins several Hogmanay traditions. Starting the new year in debt is thought to be bad luck, so many Scots still attempt to pay off their loans and credit cards before Hogmanay.

Some families also follow the traditional practice of thoroughly cleaning house before the new year arrives, then taking smoldering juniper branches through each room to fumigate the air.

Gathering around a fire is another widespread Hogmanay tradition. The most spectacular variation on that theme, native to coastal Stonehaven, is making fireballs. These are spheres of chicken wire packed with wood, paper, charcoal or other flammable materials.

On New Year's Eve revellers light them and parade down the city's streets, twirling them overhead like so many miniature comets. At the end of the march any fireballs that are still burning are hurled into the ocean.

Most Hogmanay customs are less showy and more social. Friends and family members visit each other after midnight, attempting to be the first guests of the year in each home. This practice, called first-footing, is thought to bring luck.

The visitors bring small gifts for the hosts, often whisky and oatcakes or shortbread. Hogmanay is also a major party, severely testing even the Scots' legendary capacity for drink. They'll often joke that the lengthy holiday weekend provides two days for drinking and three to deal with the hangover.

Some institutions also have their own traditions. Amongst the Scottish regiments, sentries traditionally challenge their replacement outside the gates by saying "Who goes there?"

The answer from the replacement sentry is "The New Year, all's well.”

6 Tips on How To Celebrate Hogmanay in America

For those who'd like to honor their Scots ancestry on New Year's Eve, or at least incorporate some Hogmanay into their New Year's celebration, here are a few suggestions.

  1. Light an outdoor fire, if you have a suitable fire pit or chiminea.

  2. Trim a sprig from a rowan or mountain ash tree, with its decorative berries, to place over your door for luck.

  3. After midnight, pick a tall, dark man from among your guests to be the “first foot” through your door. This custom is thought to date from the Viking incursions of the Middle Ages, when a blonde Norseman at your door was decidedly not lucky.

  4. Serve foods with a Scottish theme, including oatcakes and shortbread. You might have to bake your own oatcakes or order them online, since it's hard to find fresh-baked oatcakes in most of North America. Smoked salmon is an impeccably Scottish food that is well suited to holiday entertaining, served on small oatcakes or bannocks. Venison roast or stew is a traditional Hogmanay meal, if you can find venison.

  5. If any of your guests stay the night, serve them a steak pie the following day. It's the traditional restorative for bleary-eyed survivors of the previous night's revelry.

  6. Joining hands at midnight to sing Auld Lang Syne is one Hogmanay tradition that's already familiar to most of the English-speaking world.  Burns' poem was adopted by the English during their 19th century fad for all things Scottish, and spread rapidly to the rest of the Empire. Burns himself claimed that his verses were based on fragments of an older, traditional piece he'd learned in the countryside.

The Hogmanay celebrations in Edinburgh are the well-known as the biggest New Year’s Eve party anywhere in the world and must be experienced.

Read our guide on where to stay in Edinburgh if you are planning a visit.

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