By Sarah Pridgeon
As you are enjoying firework displays and sipping cocktails on New Year’s Eve, my family will be hovering on the front doorstep in our overcoats, waiting on midnight to (in the absence of a tall, dark stranger) shove my father across his own threshold.
As he lands on the welcome mat, clutching a lump of coal and a packet of shortbread, we will attempt to coax them from him in exchange for a tumbler of whiskey. This will not go well because one has a greater chance of convincing the cat from the Christmas tree than of removing cookies from my father’s iron grip.
It might seem an odd way to spend a New Year, but in my part of the world it’s an honor to be the first across the threshold as a new year arrives. The Scots attach more importance to New Year than ever they do to Christmas and, for centuries, the Scots and Northern English have ensured their good luck for the year ahead by arranging for a dark-haired stranger to enter the house bearing gifts to represent prosperity. It’s called “First Footing.”
In the old days, the gifts would include coins, bread, salt, coal or a drink, representing financial prosperity, food, flavor, warmth and good cheer, but these days a cup of whiskey and a bit of shortbread will suffice. In case you were wondering, Scottish shortbread is a crumbly cookie only available over here as Girl Scout “Trefoils.”
The First Footer must still be a brunette, however, in case he’s really a Viking with a pole axe concealed up his sleeve, which is considered a lot less lucky. Not that my dad was ever all that dark of hair (and don’t tell him this, but he’s now tending more to the grey), but he is at least part Scot.
As many of you trace your roots back to the fair isles I call home, may I humbly suggest participation in the tradition? Alternatively, if loitering on the porch isn’t your idea of a good time, perhaps a Hogmanay would suit? It is, after all, the template for most of the western world’s New Year parties.
For which tradition you can also thank the Vikings, whose jubilation at the passing of the shortest day really did catch on in the English collection of kingdoms – and, from there, spread to the world at large. Even “Yule” is the Viking word for New Year, although some seem to have quietly discarded the pillaging part of the festivities.
You can’t blame the poor Scots for wanting a proper knees-up. They didn’t get to celebrate Christmas at all until halfway through last century because a distant cousin of Ebeneezer Scrooge banned it at the end of the 1600s. Not ones to be cheated of a good time, they simply threw partying, gifts and celebrations into one big holiday and called it the Hogmanay.
If you want to do it properly, you’ll need lots of fireworks and to be wearing either a kilt or the hide of a cow. Either will do, but the former might be a bit chilly on the nethers at this time of year. Besides, you’ll be needing some cow hide on the end of a stick to ignite as a warning to evil spirits.
You are also required to whack everyone you pass over the head with a bit of wood. I’m not entirely sure what that part is for but, knowing the Scots, it’s probably just for fun.
To host your own fire ceremony like the one they’ll be having in Aberdeen (and to really tell those evil spirits what’s what,) you’ll need to light 20-pound fireballs and swing them around your heads on five-foot metal poles. For the sake of your party planning, I should warn you that you will need 60 people per fireball to help you march them up and down the street.
If that all sounds a bit tiring, you can be content in the knowledge that your bekilted ancestors will still approve of your revelry, because very few of us won’t be pretending we know the words to Auld Lang Syne at midnight.
I have recently discovered that at least some people in these parts think the song is French – nope! Auld Lang Syne is old-world Scottish at its inexplicable finest. The New Year staple originated in Scotland with Robert Burns, who claimed to have ‘collected’ the lyrics from much older songs; from there it spread to the rest of the British Isles and across the oceans as her people began to emigrate.
Incidentally, if you follow the worldwide tradition of ‘mumbling the words even though you have no idea what they mean’, it may interest you to know that you will be singing “For the sake of days gone by” and entering into a musical debate as to whether it’s right for the past to be forgotten. I’m guessing the maudlin theme can be attributed to Santa’s ban from Scottish chimneys (or “lumbs,” as they prefer to call them.)
At its heart, Auld Lang Syne is a call to remember long-standing friends; the cup of kindness you’ll be pledging to take is intended to symbolize those friendships. I can’t think of a better excuse for an extra glass of wine at midnight, can you?