Hogmanay has plenty of interesting traditions and superstitions, many of which revolve around “luck”, some of which are remnants of the folk magic of earlier times.
snippets from “Hugh Douglas’ The Hogmanay Companion:
At the heart of Hogmanay is the first-footing ceremony. The first person to cross the threshold brings all the luck, good or ill, for the year ahead, so he has to fulfil the strict criteria laid down by tradition.
The First-Foot has to be male, tall, dark haired, but not a doctor, minister or grave-digger. Thieves and fey folk are also shunned. He must be healthy and without deformity or handicap, although an accidental disability is acceptable. A limp, deformed foot, blindness or deafness are all reckoned to bring ill luck, as are also flat feet or eyebrows which meet in the middle.
Physical perfection is not sufficient: the first-foot should be honest, generous, good tempered and liked by all. And, he must not carry a knife or other sharp tool. No wonder the first-foot is awaited with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. The wrong first-foot across the doorstep could spoil everything and be blamed for anything that goes wrong during the succeeding twelve months. To avoid this danger, families often arrange for their house to have a first-footer who meets all the conditions that custom demands.
The most important rule for the first-footer is that he should not arrive empty handed. There are no set rules about what he should bring, other than a bottle from which to pour a drink for his host. A piece of coal or peat and cake are traditional, or even a sheaf of corn in country districts.
Without a word, the first-footer walks to the fire and places the coal on it, then pours a drink from his bottle and hands it to the host. ‘A guid new year to ane and a’,’ is the most common toast as the head of the house drains the glass. Then the host pours a dram for the first-foot and the fun can begin. The first-foot can claim a kiss from every woman in the house, and more toasts and songs follow. By this time more revelers will have arrived, and all will be given drinks and food – the traditional shortbread, cake, and Black Bun.
The great Hogmanay drink in the old days was Het Pint, a brew of ale mulled with nutmeg and whiskey. This was carried, steaming hot, in a copper kettle and poured into cups which were offered to everybody the first-footer met on his travels.
Menfolk took care of provision of the drink, while women and children were responsible for food. The poor, who could not afford a feast of their own, had a way of ensuring that they would have plenty. On Hogmanay, young people went guising from door to door, dressed up often in clothes of the opposite sex and wearing a large apron folded to form a sack in which to collect as they went round the houses, chanting the “Rise up guid wife” rhyme.
Every household gave something – oatcakes, Black Bun, shortbread or drinks.
As well as blackening faces and wearing women’s clothes, the guisers used straw to make helmets and ropes which they decorated with ribbons. In this disguise they went round the doors, accompanied by a fiddler, dancing and performing an ancient play and collecting a reward of food or money.
The guisers’ play was called The Goloshan, a form of the Christmas mummers’ play, which originated as a medieval court masque. The Goloshan, said to be derived from Galgacus, the ancient Caledonian leader who fought against the Romans, was originally performed by a group of men dressed in white and called the White Boys of Yule, and one in black representing Beelzebub. Each district had it’s own version of the play, which survives in various parts, from Shetland to Galloway, into quite recent times. Although it was often laced with snatches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Home’s Douglas and Allan Ramsay’s Gentle Shepherd, The Goloshan became a kind of saints’ play in keeping with the season, starting with the Rise up gudewife” rhyme, then turning into a confrontation between Galgacus and the King of Macedon. There was a splendid swordfight in which the Caledonian chief was slain and then brought back to life, so all ended well. At the end, a bag is passed round and money collected.
The guisers, often accompanied by a fiddler and a singer, were looked forward to eagerly by those they visited, people who knew nothing but drudgery and poverty throughout the rest of the year.
Further south, guising took the form of mumming. On New Year’s Day it was the custom throughout the northern counties to dress up in strange clothes – often women’s dress – or, if they could lay hands on no suitable disguise, to put their own clothes on inside out or back to front. With faces blackened, they went round the houses carrying brooms, dusters and dustpans, knocking at every door. As each door was opened, they rushed into the house and ran round and round, miming cleaning actions and humming continuously through closed lips. Having ‘swept away’ the old year to make way for the new, they were rewarded with money and moved on to the next house.
Preparing the house
In the old days, it was considered bad luck for the house to be unclean or untidy at midnight on Hogmanay. As a result, housewives spent days scrubbing and polishing until the place shone and in the dying minutes of the year, they put out the last of the dirt and ashes from the fire. The byre, also, was cleansed and purified with juniper fumes.
walls, floors and doorposts were sprinkled with water specially brought from the well, or even with urine, and dried juniper was burned to cleanse the interior of the house. Rowan was placed above the door for luck, holly to keep the fairies out, mistletoe to prevent illness and hazel and yew because of their magic powers to protect all who resided in the house. After the burning of the juniper, doors were opened to allow fresh air to drive out the fumes and only then was the house considered ready for the New Year.
After the stroke of midnight, nothing could be taken from the house until something had been brought in. Old-fashioned folk would not give or lend anything on the first day of the year, not from miserliness, but because they considered they would be handing away their good luck. Even the sweepings from the floor were not thrown out on New Year’s Day.
Fire and Water Rituals
As might be expected in a festival whose origins lay in propitiating the sun god, those elements essential to life – fire and water – played an important part in the New Year rites. Bonfires were lit in many places and elaborate water rites were observed, principally the fetching of the first water on New Year’s morning, which was known as ‘the Creaming of the Well’. The first person to draw water was lucky, so there was always competition to be there ahead of the rest of the village that day.
Fire was important, so it was considered unlucky to give anyone so much as a light to take ashes out of the house on new Year’s Day. The fireplace told much. if peat or live coal rolled away, someone would depart during the year; if the fire burned brightly prosperity would follow, but if it just smouldered a year of adversity lay ahead. On New Year’s morning, the fire was raked and the ashes examined carefully for omens of death and ill fortune.
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