The history of Hogmanay: The pagan roots of Scotland's New Year celebrations

View of Edinburgh clock tower with fireworks in background
View of Edinburgh clock tower with fireworks in background | Shutterstock

Everyone knows the Scots love a New Year celebration. They love it so much they even have a special name for it – Hogmanay. Up and down the country parties spill onto the streets, fireworks explode whilst strangers and friends link arms to sing Auld Lang Syne. They even get an extra day’s bank holiday to recover from all the festivities. But why exactly is this?

Although Christmas is now an established tradition across Scotland, for centuries it was banned and hardly celebrated at all. Would you believe it wasn’t until 1958 that Christmas became a bank holiday in Scotland, meaning for hundreds of years Hogmanay was the primary winter festival for Scots?

The reason for this dates back to the 16th century when Scotland officially split from the Papacy and Catholic Church. The period was known as the Scottish Reformation and great debates raged over how exactly the Christian religion should be practised. Christmas became linked with the lavish and often extravagant celebrations of the Catholic Church. So, in 1640, Scotland officially banned the Christmas season. That’s right, in Scotland it was illegal to celebrate Yule and anyone found doing so risked imprisonment.

This meant that New Year was the focal point of winter for the Scots. Even though the ban on Christmas was withdrawn in the late 17th century, by that stage Hogmanay had taken on a life of its own. It became known as the ‘daft days’, a period of merriment, celebration and excess that had given everyone something to look forward to during the bleak midwinter.

Whilst the Scottish Reformation sent Hogmanay into overdrive, its history dates back to the days of the Vikings and Celtic pagans. Those Norsemen from Scandinavia landed on Scottish shores in the early 8th century and soon after began to settle. Their presence, particularly in the Highlands and Islands, left a cultural mark that lingers to this day.

Hogmanay celebrations are believed to derive from a combination of ancient customs - the Viking celebration of the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, and the Celtic pagan celebration of Samhain, the end of the harvest season.

When it comes to the origins of the word, historians are less sure. Some have argued it comes from the French word ‘hoginane’, which derives from the medieval word ‘aguillaneuf’, meaning a ‘gift given at New Year’. Others have thrown in possible Greek, Norse and Scandinavian roots, but no-one really knows for sure.

One of the traditions of Hogmanay is something called ‘first-footing’, a tradition that dates back to the time of those Norse invaders. It still occurs today in Scotland and parts of Northern England.

After the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, people visit the homes of friends and family. The aim is to be the first foot to enter their home that year, all in the hope of bringing the household good luck for the twelve months ahead.

Traditionally, the first foot should be a tall, dark-haired man carrying gifts. Why is this you ask? Well, back in the days of the Vikings, if a tall blonde-haired man carrying a sharpened axe knocked on your door, he was probably not there to wish you a Happy New Year!

There are a variety of gifts a first foot could bring, each symbolising different aspects of good fortune. The first is the black bun, a type of fruitcake completely covered in pastry. The bun ensures the people of the house won’t go hungry in the year ahead.

The second gift is a lump of coal to symbolise warmth, which ensures the house stays warm in the cold months ahead. Other gifts include coins for prosperity and whisky for good cheer. A household should never let the first foot in if they are not carrying gifts, as this will be a bad omen of misfortune.

Speaking of bad luck, various housekeeping jobs should be conducted before the stroke of midnight, if the occupants are to avoid twelve months of adversity. The house should be cleaned from top to bottom whilst any ashes should be removed from the fireplace. Outstanding debts should also be cleared. The symbolism is obvious - out with the old and in with the new.

Of course, no Hogmanay would be complete without the post-midnight singing of Auld Lang Syne, which was written by Scottish poet Robert Burns in the late 18th century. Again, the idea of the song is to bid farewell to the old year and welcome in the new.

This concept of renewal, community and the bringing of gifts for good fortune parallels customs and symbolism dating back some 2,000 years, to the ancient pagan festival of harvest called Samhain.

Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-in’) was traditionally celebrated on the 1st of November. On the night before Samhain, homes would extinguish their hearth fires, only to relight them the next day with the embers of the giant communal fire, purifying the old and moving on with a clean slate.

This link between fire and Hogmanay continues to this day, with torchlit processions (most notably the Stonehaven Fireball Ceremony) and fireworks all laden with pagan symbolism. To the ancient Vikings and Celts, fire represented warmth, vitality and protection, as the bright light consumed evil spirits during the darkest time of the year.

On the topic of malevolent ghosts, during Samhain, it was believed the spirits crossed over into our world to roam the Earth once again. The ghosts, who were feared and respected in equal measure, needed to be appeased if the people were to survive the coming winter. As with Hogmanay, the offering of food, drink and hospitality were provided in the hope of placating the spirits during the darker half of the year and blessing homes with good fortune.

So remember, if you find yourself heading north of the border this Hogmanay, don’t forget to take your black bun, coal and whisky!