Explore the weird, winding, and wonderful ways in which we Pagan-types mark cyclic and special times, events, and celebrations in our everyday lives.
Hogmanay and the First Foot
It’s the Sixth Day of Twelvetide, and tonight we welcome in the Gregorian New Year of 2013! This is traditionally a night of festivity and merrymaking. Many religious communities celebrate this as “Watch Night.” Gathering before midnight, they watch the old year pass and the new one begin, giving thanks and asking for good favor in the next 365 days.
The ancient Egyptians held a celebration along the Nile Delta at the start of the New Year. Lasting for twenty-four hours, the festivities included offerings to the gods, most likely asking that the Nile behave itself and the crops flourish in the coming year. Shrines and offerings were placed on ceremonial barges and towed down the river to Luxor, while people lined the Nile’s banks to play homage.
Ding, Ding! Bells o’ the Barony!
Ding! Ding! Hogmanay harmony!
Naebody greets for the year that’s away.
~W.D. Cocker, “The Auld Year”
In Scotland, New Year’s celebrations—known as Hogmanay—are often more bold than those of Christmas and tend to spill out of homes and into the street.
The term Hogmanay may be a corruption of au gui menez, “lead to the mistletoe,” and suggests a Druidic history for the feasting, as Britain’s Druidic priests were said to cut the sacred mistletoe around the Winter Solstice. Another source (John Matthews' The Winter Solstice) suggests the term may have come from an old Celtic song that began oge midne, “new morning” (188). In any case, the term Hogmanay is synonymous with the New Year and with a blowout party, Scottish style!
In some traditions, people clean their homes on the New Year, with the idea being to purify the surroundings and set life in order so that the New Year may begin fresh. Another pre-Hogmanay convention suggests that all work be completed before the New Year in order that the celebration can be properly observed and all energy focused on seeing the New Year in properly.
Juniper played a significant role in the ancient folkways associated with the New Year. Sprigs were soaked in water and the water drank (for internal purification) or used as a "sprinkle" to cleanse the rooms throughout one's home. The juniper sprigs were then dried slightly and burned as a smudge, being carried from room to room as a purifying fumigant.
Another well-known Scottish New Year tradition is that of “first footing.” It's said that the first visitor to the home in the New Year portends the home’s luck for the following year. To have a dark-haired man visit is said to bring the best luck.
A more elaborate version of first footing requires that all lights in the house be put out at midnight, except for a single candle flame. A family member is sent outside with the flame, and must prevent it from going out. At midnight, the person knocks on the door and is welcomed in by everyone within the house. The “guest” then goes around the house and uses the candle to ceremonially relight the home. It's easy to see the connections between this ritual and the 'return of light' themes common to Solstice celebrations.
In another variation, the “first foot” brings along a lump of coal for good luck. Scottish tradition also requires the “foot” to bring a bottle of alcohol, usually Scotch whisky. Which, by the way, is the traditional beverage with which to toast the New Year, along with the singing of the Scottish Aulde Lang Syne: sipping champagne at New Year’s Eve is a modern twist on that tradition. Other customary gifts include shortbread, fruitcake, and black bun, a dark, rich fruit cake enclosed in pastry.
Once the “first foot” has entered and been welcomed, the festivities begin, with singing, dancing, and much food and drink. Eggnog is traditionally served at this time. Happy merrymaking!
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