Get Your First Foot In The Door:
Your guide to Hogmanay, the Scottish new year tradition
It’s just past the stroke of midnight on January 1 in Scotland, and you hear a knock at your front door. You rush to open it, revealing a tall, dark haired lad illuminated by fireworks coloring the night sky.
With a grin on his face, this fellow takes one exaggerated step through your threshold, bearing a dark fruitcake, a lump of coal, and a bottle of whisky as gifts. You welcome him in to join the party, and together with your family and friends you sing Robert Burns’ immortal tune, Auld Lang Syne, into the wee hours of the new year.
Ah, the time-honored tradition of Hogmanay! The Scottish celebration of New Year’s Eve that’s a bigger deal than even Christmas. While Americans drop a shiny ball, the Scots are busy cleaning their homes from floor to ceiling. More on that in a moment.
As with many Scottish traditions, Hogmanay has its roots in paganism. With Christmas effectively banned in Scotland until the late 1600s, the Scots of yore wasted no time finding another date on the calendar to hold a party.
They eventually settled on December 31 as a convenient way to mark the passing of time and create a fresh sense of hope for the year ahead. They called it the “daft days,” owing to the party vibe of the holiday in the face of the cold, dark season.
So who’s that strapping young man at the door? He’s a first-footer, the role taken by a friend or family member who arrives at the stroke of midnight, bringing gifts of good luck. First-footers should be tall with dark hair, since the presence of a blonde man at your door may spell doom (this goes back to the Viking invasion days, you see).
The first-footer’s gifts represent specific good fortunes to be bestowed upon the home and its inhabitants. The black bun is to ensure the family won’t go hungry in the new year (though if their only choice is to eat the dark fruitcake, that could be a problem). Then there’s the lump of coal, to keep the house warm throughout winter. If he brings coins, it’ll be a prosperous year; if he brings whisky, a fun one. It’s important to note one crucial aspect of first-footing: do not invite a first-footer in your home if they show up empty handed! That’s a year’s worth of bad luck.
But before the first-footer knocks, it’s Hogmanay custom to make sure the home is tidied up to perfection, the trash is thrown away, and outstanding bills are paid before midnight arrives. Always important to have a fresh start for the new year. This was also once viewed as a way to please the spirits (those who had stuck around after Samhain).
As with every uniquely Scottish holiday tradition, Hogmanay is all in good fun and a way to bring communities together. So if you’re looking to shake up your New Year’s Eve beyond countdowns and stroke of midnight smooches, enlist the help of your tallest brunette friend, grab the duster and welcome in 2023 like a Scot.