30 Dec 2022

New Year, New Start

Hogmanay is a New Year’s Eve celebration that is enjoyed all over Scotland, and its history can be traced back to pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. While it may not be such a major festival in the rest of the UK, elements of Hogmanay have been woven into all our celebrations at the turning point of the year.


It is considered unlucky to welcome in the new year in an uncleaned house. In Scotland this tradition of cleaning the house is known as “redding” and includes removing the ashes from the fireplace and repaying all standing debts.

These traditional preparations have a place in all our lives. After the indolence and indulgence of Christmas, and the inevitable visitors, cooking and entertaining, it is highly likely that all our houses are in need of a thorough clean and tidy-up, and psychologically, it is encouraging to approach a new year with the feeling that all the detritus of the old year has been swept away.

Bringing greenery into the house, as with the yule log before Christmas, is a symbolic gesture. Branches of rowan, placed on the threshold, are said to bring good luck, while mistletoe is believed to bring good health to a household (no more sleazy Christmas kisses). Hazel and yew are believed to protect the house and all within it. Juniper, burnt in the grate, suffuses the house with its pungent scent and windows are flung open to let in the fresh air, in preparation for the celebrations.

On the Midnight Hour

As the bells ring in the new year, people all over the country – not just Scotland – will be linking arms and singing Auld Lang Syne.  This song was based on old Scottish ballads and poems and adapted by the great Scottish poet, Robert Burns. The phrase “Auld Lang Syne”, meaning “days of long ago” obviously spoke eloquently of the feelings of nostalgia that can suffuse us at this time of the year, and the ballad has gained worldwide popularity.

As soon as the bells have rung, people go to visit friends and family (known as “first footing” in Scotland) bearing a bottle of warming spirits, which is quite possibly a ritual dating back to Viking times. Their appearance brings good luck to the household, but the ‘wrong’ first-footer – variously identified as blonde men, redheads, women, people with flat feet – was traditionally considered unlucky, and it was quite acceptable to turn them away.

If you’re thinking about going first-footing, never turn up empty-handed. You should consider bringing the following: a bottle of spirits to toast the new year; a lump of coal to symbolise the bringing of comfort; a back bun or shortbread to indicate the household will not go hungry; a silver coin to signify prosperity.

New Year’s Resolutions

The Roman celebration of the new year was centred on the two-headed Roman god Janus, who looked both forward and back. Many Romans looked for forgiveness from their enemies at this time of year, and this is thought to be the origin of the new year’s resolution – a belief that past evil spirits, entities or demons were banished when frailties, temptations, bad habits and past transgressions were denounced.

The Roman tradition of wiping the slate clean before ushering in a new year has survived throughout the intervening centuries. We are all seduced by the idea of a fresh start and feel opening a new diary or year planner has great symbolic significance. The start of a new year should be a springboard for banishing our worst habits and ushering in a new era of self-improvement, self-discipline, creative challenges, fitness targets and so on.

While all these goals are laudable, and sometimes life-changing, the aspirations of January have all too often been discarded by the dark days of February. Given that this may well happen, it might be wise to stay schtum about your projected programme of self-improvement, and simply smile enigmatically when asked about your new year’s resolutions. A proclamation of praiseworthy goals and targets can all too easily turn into virtue-signalling and if you regale people with a list as long as your arm, you’ll just make them feel bad about their own lack of discipline and zest for personal growth. If you fail to achieve the goals you have been broadcasting to all and sundry in the first week of January, you are then condemned to endlessly explaining that you have fallen by the wayside, and your evangelical passion for improvement will start to look distinctly shop-worn.


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