By Stewart Hendrickson

    I once emailed my sister with the cryptic greeting “Happy Hogmanay” on New Year’s Eve. With that greeting she thought I had really flipped out. But it’s just the ancient Scottish celebration (pronounced hog-muh-NAY) of the last day of the year. Its roots probably go back to pagan celebrations of the winter solstice with sun and fire worship.
    This later evolved into the ancient Roman winter festival of Saturnalia. It was also infused with the Viking celebration of Yule, which became the twelve days of Christmas. With the Reformation and religious Puritanism under Oliver Cromwell, who banned Christmas in Scotland in 1651, this orgiastic winter festival went underground until the late 17th century.
    As Hogmanay re-emerged, the rituals were transformed as the rationale behind many of the rites had vanished. It became a celebration of the new year with promises of hope, and a break from all that may have been bad in the previous year.
    In modern times, Hogmanay celebrations in Glasgow and Edinburgh have evolved into huge street parties for hundreds of thousands of people, with fireworks, dancing and drinking into the early morning of the new year.
    A popular custom of Hogmanay is the practice of first footing. The first person to cross the threshold after the strike of midnight on New Year’s Eve can bring either good or evil luck to the house. A dark haired man brings good luck, but a light haired man, or worse a woman, is regarded with dread. The crossing of the threshold is accompanied by symbolic gifts (traditionally coal, salt, shortbread, or whisky) and celebrations with food, dancing, drink and song, which may go on into the wee hours of the new year. A Hogmanay Toast:

May the best you've ever seen
Be the worst you'll ever see
May the mouse ne'er leave your gernel
Wi' a teardrop in it's e'e
May your lum keep blithely reekin'
'Till your auld enough tae die
May ye aye be hale and happy
As I wish ye now tae be.

    One of the songs we traditionally associate with New Year’s Eve is Auld Lang Syne. This song, attributed to the Scottish poet Robert Burns, was originally a song of fellowship to be sung on cold winter nights around the fire, close to the winter solstice. This song was not original by Burns, but he adopted it from an earlier song. He perhaps only added a verse or two of his own. He sent a copy of the original song to the British Museum with this comment: "The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man's singing , is enough to recommend any air."
    Here is a version of the original song that I sing:

We twa hae run aboot the braes (hills)
And pu'd the gowans fine.
(pulled the daisies fine)
We've wandered mony a weary foot,
(many a weary foot)
Sin' auld lang syne.
(since old long time)

We twa hae paidl'd i' the burn,
 (waded in the stream)
From morning sun till dine,
But seas between us braid hae roared
 (broad have roared)
Sin' auld lang syne.

And surely you'll be your pint stowp,
 (you pay for your pint)
And surely I'll be mine,
(I’ll pay for mine)
And we'll tak a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

And ther's a hand, my trusty friend,
And gie's a hand o' thine; (here’s)
And we'll tak a right guid-willie waught,
(good drink/toast)
For auld lang sine

And ther's a hand, my trusty friend,
And gie's a hand o' thine;
We'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

    One of the nicest renditions of this song was done by Johnny Cunningham and Susan KcKeown on their CD A Winter Talisman.
    And after you have properly celebrated Hogmanay, you should look forward to celebrating Rabbie Burns’ birthday on January 25 (he should be 248 years old then). That evening is known as “Burns Night” and includes the traditional “Burns Supper” ( of the Haggis, Burns poems, plenty of Scotch whisky (not necessarily in that order), and rousing songs and music. You should be able to find at least one Burns Supper in Seattle, provided you have the guts for haggis and can hold your whisky!

Happy Hogmanay and cheers to Rabbie Burns!


Stewart Hendrickson is Chemistry Professor Emeritus – St. Olaf College, Research Professor Emeritus – University of Washington, and in his new career, an unemployed folk musician (voice, fiddle, guitar; ). Reprinted from the Victory Review, December, 2006.