By Ashley Kath-Bilsky
I had thought to share a memory of Christmas past, but since we are now hours away from New Year's Eve, my thoughts are rather preoccupied looking forward not back.
For most of the world, the evening of December 31st is spent with a focus on merriment. For some, it is a day to dress up in elegant clothing and attend a formal Gala at a first class hotel. For others, their tradition might mean bundling up in warm clothing and gathering in places like New York's Times Square eagerly awaiting -- with a crowd of other people -- the countdown that signals a giant crystal lighted ball to drop at midnight. You might be at Walt Disney World on a family vacation watching a grand fireworks display. But whether you are in a crowd, a small gathering of friends, or spending a quiet evening at home with family, we all have one thing in common. At the stroke of midnight, the world bids farewell to the passing year and celebrates the dawning of a New Year with optimism, good wishes, and hope.
So, it is with a hopeful heart that I would like to share with you the New Year's Eve tradition that I look forward to each year, one that embraces my Scots heritage. It even has a special name.
Meaning the “last day of the year”, Hogmanay is an old, much loved custom in the Highlands of Scotland. It dates back to the celebration of the Winter Solstice among the Norse, but also encompasses Gaelic customs used at Samhein.
Why is that, you might ask? Many people of Scots heritage are descendants of Vikings who crossed the North Sea to invade Scotland. As a result, Norse influences are still prevalent in the culture and traditions of Scotland today.
The customs practiced at Hogmanay actually begin at dawn on December 31st. After a small breakfast, Scottish homes are cleaned from top to bottom until they are spotless. Or, spick-and-span as my mother used to say.
Items are then placed about to symbolize what you would like to happen in the New Year. For example, a plate might be set out with coins for prosperity and other symbols for health, love, and protection.
When the clock strikes midnight, windows and doors are opened to welcome the New Year. A feast (or buffet in our house) is set for all to enjoy. And I mean "all". No one is turned away. And since it is a tradition in the Highlands for adults to go door-to-door singing or shouting Hogmanay, quite a crowd could be expected...which brings me to the Scots tradition of "first footing".
The gifts are intended to bring luck to the house and the family in the New Year. Naturally, in return, food and drink are offered to your guests.
It can become quite the Céilidh (party) as everyone who wants to be the first-footer shows up. Before you know it, you have a house full of guests – as well as lots of delicious goodies. Oh, and if a tall, dark (preferably handsome) man is your first-footer, needless to say that brings the best luck of all! On the other hand, should a fair-haired man show up on your doorstep, the luck may not be so good; they are a reminder of the Viking invaders.
Of course, no gathering would be complete without everyone singing Auld Lang Syne, the traditional New Year's anthem written by the famous Scots poet, Robert Burns. And lest you think I jest about the level of merriment and partying for Hogmanay, in Scotland, the day after New Year's, January 2nd, is also a holiday...no doubt a much appreciated day to recover from overindulgence.
However, in Edinburgh, you very likely would see "A bunch of noisy, hairy Vikings and Scottish highlanders dragging a Viking warship, as they lead a 15,000 strong crowd bearing flaming torches". Traditionally, they walk (along with pipers) from historic Parliament Square on the Old Town's Royal Mile, down the Mound, along Princes Street and Waterloo Place, and up to the ancient Edinburgh meeting ground Calton Hill. Phew! Talk about a hike! If you won't be in Edinburgh, fear not, most cities, towns and villages in the Highlands will have a torchlight procession. The procession ends with everyone helping to ignite a roaring bonfire.
The bonfire itself has a long history and great importance at Hogmanay. It represents everything from the Sun and driving away evil spirits, to how light will always conquer darkness, and the belief that the bonfire will secure happiness and luck in the New Year. The bigger the bonfire, the better the luck. In fact, great care is taken to ensure the bonfire does not go out. Since everyone in the towns and villages carries a torch to light the bonfire, determined that the tradition be upheld by the entire community, it would be a terrible omen of bad luck should the bonfire go out before sunrise.
Although we all might have a special way we celebrate the New Year, one thing is certain. At midnight with the tolling of church bells or clock chimes, whether you celebrate with dinner for two and a Happy New Year kiss, or music, merriment, and fireworks at a festive large gathering, we will all be embracing the promise of a new beginning in a New Year.
It is my heartfelt hope that 2017 will be a year of peace, unity, prosperity, health, and happiness for you, your loved ones, your community, your country, and our world.
HAPPY NEW YEAR! Or, as they say in Scotland...Bliadhna Mhath Úr . ~ AKB
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