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Hogmanay - New Year's in Scotland

For most Americans, Christmas is more than a day - it's an entire month of festivities, reflecting our multiethnic and multireligious culture with an enormous amount of both common and uncommon traditions. It's hard to imagine all the planning, parties, gifts and good times geared towards a holiday other than Christmas.

But in Scotland, they do just that. If you want to party hearty, celebrate a low-key Christmas at home, then get your plane tickets to arrive in Edinburgh around the 28th of December and plan to stay at least through January 3 (you'll need that long to recover!).

In Scotland, all the Scots' love of dancing, music, mischievous merry-making and, of course, whisky drinking, come together in the biggest party of the year - Hogmanay (New Year's Eve to the rest of us).

Consider the tremendous influence of Scottish traditions on our own New Year's Eve celebrations - what song do we all sing? Auld Lang Syne, naturally. What list do we all make on January 1? Our New Year's resolutions, a tradition invented by the Scots (yes, really). Why are guests told to BYOB? Because the Scots have a custom called "first footing" which consists of a handsome young man (we wish) being the first to cross our threshold as soon as the "bells ring" at midnight, bearing gifts of bread or meat (food for the new year), coal (warmth for the new year), and, what else? Whisky - drink for the new year and by far the most important and consistently unforgotten contribution.

History of Hogmanay in Scotland

How did it come about that the Scots celebrate New Year's so much more heartily than Christmas? During the middle ages, Scotland celebrated a merry Christmas just as cheerfully, piously and faithfully as the other Celtic countries - a wonderful combination of celebrating the "Christ's Mass" in the Catholic tradition combined with Celtic customs and traditions that are familiar to us through celebrations in England and Ireland.

For instance, the Scots decorated their homes with mistletoe and juniper, created and performed comic skits (mumming), prepared and ate special foods, and carefully selected and prepared a Yule log (a tradition the Scots still maintain and Christmas itself is still often called "Yule" in Scotland).

Unfortunately, in the late 1500s, the Scottish Reformation took a strong stand against pagan (eg, Catholic) celebrations and abolished Christmas. They abolished it for four hundred years - no kidding. Christmas was not a day off work for most Scots until almost 1960. This is not to say the Scots didn't celebrate Christmas; it was just a private, family holiday without much ado.

But this went very much against Scots nature. The Scots like to party. They like to have fun. So in the early 1600s, they changed the date of New Year's from March 25 to January 1 and began celebrating Hogmanay.

As the original midwinter celebrations were based on the fire rituals of pagan times (the Yule log is an example), and as many Scots remained Catholic, especially in the Highlands, the resourceful Scots simply transferred the bulk of their Christmas celebrations to New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.

Throughout Scotland today, Hogmanay is a two-day holiday (no work on January 1 or 2) filled with all kinds of festivals, parties, bonfires and, now, fireworks. Edinburgh's Hogmanay Festival lasts for days and includes one of the most spectacular fireworks displays in the world. In many parts of Scotland, a midnight mass is still celebrated on New Year's Eve.

And just like us, they sing Auld Lang Syne and often wake up with a major hangover the next morning.