I was surprised to learn, when we first came here in 1992, that even in the 1970s Christmas in Scotland was quite a minor holiday. One friend remembers that her father, like many people, didn’t get the day off on Christmas Day. New Year’s, on the other hand, was traditionally the big winter holiday. People often had a week off work, and celebrated for a good part of that time. When we first moved to Aberdeen, “first-footing” was a widespread practice: after the bells at midnight, you would go visit your friends and neighbours to wish them a Happy New Year, and you would always be sure to bring a wee present. Shortbread and something useful for the house were considered appropriate (I remember receiving sponges and j-cloths!) and the first-footers would expect to be offered a dram of whisky to toast the New Year. (Technically, only the first person to cross your threshhold after midnight is the first-footer.)
I’d like to think that the tradition of first-footing is alive and well in smaller communities. Nowadays the streets of Aberdeen are no longer full of first-footers paying calls until the wee hours on New Year’s Day, but people still pay attention to who the first person is to cross the doorstep after midnight. Even if it’s the next day, people will say, “Oh you’re our first-footers!” If you are first-footed by a tall, handsome man you are considered to be very lucky.
Now, with the influence of English customs, Christmas and Boxing Day are both days off in Scotland, but the celebration of the coming of the New Year is still very important to people. And there are a number of Scottish superstitions about New Year’s. It was always considered important to have a scrupulously clean house on New Year’s Eve, and I’ve heard people say that the fire grate in particular had to be spotless. At least one woman at my church adheres to the superstition that all knitting should be off the needles (meaning finished rather than just taken off, I believe!) before midnight on Hogmanay. I’ve also had Scottish friends return books they’ve borrowed, because it’s considered bad luck not to return things before Hogmanay. I don’t adhere to any of these superstitions, but one Scottish custom that we’ve adopted is to open two doors just before the bells, one door to let the old year out and another to let the new year in.
One of the most special ways I’ve experienced to celebrate New Year’s is the Fireball Ceremony in the village of Stonehaven, a few miles south of here on the coast. The people of the village parade up and down the main street swinging huge cages full of burning rags around their heads, until finally the “fireballs” are hurled into the harbour. (You can see photos here.) It’s an ancient tradition: I was told that the fire is meant to cleanse the village of evil spirits at that most important moment, the stroke of midnight at the New Year. The ceremony draws many people and in recent years the thought of standing waiting in the freezing cold for about two hours has been a bit much for us! Here in Aberdeen, there are fireworks at the stroke of midnight, and – my most favourite thing – the ships in the harbour all blow their horns. I love listening to that friendly chorus, and I love the magic of a fresh start and a New Year.
Lastly, my Gaelic teacher once told us it was considered very unlucky when he was growing up in the Cairngorms to wish someone a Happy New Year before the new year had actually come – although I notice people do this all the time now, so it must be yet another belief that is dying out. He advised us to wish people a “Happy New Year when it comes” so I will wish you all Bliadhna Mhath Uir ‘nuair a thig i!