Popular Posts

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Auld Lang Syne

Though undoubtedly there are some wonderful worldwide New Year’s celebrations (we read about some of them on December 2nd, and there are many more in the Crump Encyclopedia), for the sake of brevity and my sanity, this will focus on the Anglo/Celtic diaspora of celebrations, though with a flavoring of other traditions.

Between the 13th century and 1752, New Year was observed on March 25th, “Lady Day,” the Feast of the Annunciation. Scotland (as detailed on December 11) changed its New Year to January 1st in 1600, so, with the decision by the Presbyterian church that celebration of Christmas had no biblical basis, New Year’s became the principle midwinter celebration.

Customs on the Stroke of Midnight

In Wales and the Marches, the back door is first opened at the first stroke of midnight to release the Old Year, then the door is locked to keep luck from escaping, and finally on the last stroke, the front door is opened to let the New Year in.

The First-Footing is what Crump calls “an endearing tradition” in the north of England and in Scotland. It’s based on the ancient superstition that the first person or creature to come in the door on the first day of the New Year will influence the kind of luck the household has. In Scotland, a dark-haired, tall, handsome man with a high instep is favored, as are dogs. The anonymous webmaster of Hogmanay.net suggests that the reason light-haired men are considered bad luck is a race memory of the Vikings from their adventures in Scotland in the 4th through 12th centuries. What will bring you bad luck is: women (what a surprise!), people with flat feet (I’m doubly damned then!), people with squint-eyes (triply damned!), gravediggers, doctors, and cats. People who meet the first criteria will go house by house, entering shortly after midnight, to bring good luck. They take with them handsels, which are bread, coal, salt, money, and whiskey. The person coming in places the coal on the fire, the gifts on the table, and pours a drink for the head of the house. (According to Will Forbes, the coal is so that the house will never be cold, the food--a black bun in the northeast--so that you will never go hungry.) No one is supposed to speak while this is going on, until the First-Footer pronounces a New Year’s wish of luck and prosperity. Then the host shares the gifts with everyone, especially the First-Footer. In Scotland, they may also bring shortbread, oatcakes, black bun, chocolates, or fruit. Hogmanay.net suggests that it is more likely that groups of friends now go from house to house in a first-footing ceremony.

There were once customs and superstitions associated with New Year which have since disappeared, such as the old year’s bad luck being burned with the cailleach, a small wooden effigy of an old woman who represented the spirit of winter (a custom that appears worldwide; one thinks of Zozobra). Men also went thigging (begging on behalf of the needy) from door to door (like the elusive Hoggells?). Douglas records the following rhymes in association with thigging:

Rise up, guid wife, an’ shake your feathers,
Dinna think that we are beggars:
We are bairns come out to play
Get up and gie’s our Hogmanay!

My feet’s cauld, my shoon’s din,
Gie’s my cakes, and let me rin.

In Aberdeenshire, a newborn baby who gave three “greets” at the New Year was expected to live a long and healthy life. In many places in Scotland it was considered unlucky to marry during the first 12 days of the New Year.

In England, following the Old Calendar, gifts were exchanged on New Year’s when the Lord of the Manor was given samples of produce by his tenants and peasants, while he gave a valuable gift to the Queen or King. Also, husbands would give their wives money at this time to buy pins, which is why we have the phrase “pin money.” Girls might drop egg whites into water, finding the names of their future husbands in the whites.


“But surely you can’t have had a good New Year if you can remember it.” --Response of a correspondent on being asked for Hogmanay memories, from Hugh Douglas’ The Hogmanay Companion

The word for the Scottish New Year celebrations is of unknown origin. It might come from French; from Homme est né (“Man is born,” describing Christmas), aguillaneuf (a New Year’s gift), or hoguinané (the Norman dialect of aguillaneuf); or from Celtic languages: halegmonath (Anglo-Saxon for “holy month”), oge maiden (Gaelic for “New Morning”). Or it could come from further afield: hagmena (Greek for “holy moon”); hoggo-nott (Scandinavian for “night before Yule”); or hoogmindag (Flemish for “great love day”). (Each one seems less likely than the last.) New Year’s Eve is known in Gaelic as Oidhche Chaluinne, Night of the Candles.

Similar to the preparations Indian families perform for Diwali, Scottish families clean and repair their homes in the weeks leading up to Hogmanay. There is an old ritual to fumigate homes with juniper berries to purge evil. On Hogmanay, the host sets food and drink before all guests. This might include shortbread, black bun, cherry cake, plum cake, sultana cake, seed cake, oatcakes, or clootie dumpling (cake with raisins and dumplings). The drink might be het pint or Athollbrose (made of oatmeal, whiskey, cream, honey, and eggs—doesn’t sound too dissimilar from syllabub, see December 12). Or for the teetotallers, ginger wine (made of lemon, oranges, sugar, and ginger).

Here is a recipe from 1826 for het pint.

4 pints mild ale
3 eggs
½ pint Scottish whisky
Sugar to taste

Grate a nutmeg into two quarts of the ale and bring it to a boil. Mix a little cold ale with sugar necessary to sweeten this, and three eggs, making sure they don’t curdle. Pour in ½ pint whisky, bring it nearly to a boil, and then pour from one vessel to another until it becomes smooth and bright.

Some countries like Bulgaria have the custom of children tapping adults with decorated poles to give good luck and health (think of the Hunting of the Wren, see December 9). There is a similar custom on the islands of Lewis and South Uist. Boys bearing sticks enter homes and chant Gaelic rhymes. The leader wears a sheepskin and walks clockwise around a chair while others tap the sheepskin with their sticks. Presumably this is carried out in a room that’s been cleared of most of its furniture, as it now becomes a health and safety nightmare. The leader singes his sheepskin and everyone has a whiff of the smoke for good luck (ewww). Then the hosts give them oatcakes or else they get cursed.

In the larger cities of Scotland, the Hogmanay celebrations have become ticketed events with sponsored concerts, street parties, ceilidh (pronounced “kayleh”) dancing, and torchlight processions. There are also many sporting events on New Year’s Day, including the Huskies at Holyrood (a sled-dog race). People also take “dooks” (dunks) into freezing rivers. A curious custom is that of the Kirkwall Ba’ Game played by men in the city of Kirkwall on the Orkney Islands. It has been played there in its present form since 1850. The object of the game is for Doonies (those born north of St Magnus Cathedral) and Uppies (those born south, naturally) to try to move a hard, cork-filled leather ball to a goal, with 200 or more fellow players. According to medieval legend, this game came from a man from Kirkwall slaying a regional tyrant, decapitating the head and tying it to his saddle. He then accidentally cut himself on the head’s tooth, got infected, and died. So the people of the town kicked the head through the streets in revenge. That sounds like the Scots!

Fire Processions

Bonfires are a large part of Hogmanay celebrations. In the city of Biggar in Scotland, the fire traditionally burns all night, and the gifts of red herrings are toasted over the fire and eaten on the spot. In Stonehaven, men march down the High Street, swinging 20 pound fireballs on 5 foot metal chains down to the harbor. They then toss them into the sea. In Comrie, flambeaux of canvas torches soaked in paraffin are set atop 10 foot birch poles placed along the dyke by the Auld Kirkyaird. They are lit at midnight, men and a pipe band march them through the streets, and then they are hurled into the River Earn.

In Burghead, the unique “Burning of the Clavie” takes place on January 11th, which is the Old New Year’s Eve in the Julian calendar. Clavie is a tar barrel on an 8 foot pole. It can only be touched by the Clavie Crew. A Clavie King is chosen who lights the clavier, bears it across the town, and smoldering brands are thrown into house doors or to bystanders for luck (sounds dangerous). The clavie is taken to Doorie Hill, where it is fixed to a stone pillar. The Clavie King refuels it with more tar, then after awhile smashes it with a hatchet, and people save pieces for luck.

In Herefordshire in the early 20th century, there was a “Burning of the Bush.” The bush was made of hawthorn and mistletoe and hung in the kitchen from one New Year’s Day to the next. In London in 1987, a new event was called the Lord Mayor of Wesminster’s Big Parade, which is now known as the New Year’s Parade—London. It is the world’s largest

New Year’s parade

In Wales, there is the tradition of the calenigg (small gift) which comes from Kalends (see December 1). Welsh children would take water and evergreen branches and go door to door singing carols and anointing friends’ faces with water. They would receive in turn coins. Sometimes they gave out good luck charms, caleniggs which were apples set on three sticks decorated with almonds, raisins, greenery, ribbons, and one candle wedged on top. Another curious custom that comes from Wales is that of the Mari Lwyd (the Grey Mare). This goes back to Teutonic times when horses were sometimes sacrificed to the gods. The skulls would then be placed on poles and the jaws propped open as a talisman against enemies. The Welsh custom involves operating the horse skull’s jaws by a wooden pulley, operated by a man hidden under a white sheet. The skull is bedecked with false eyes, ears and ribbons. The Mare and an entourage of black-faced men go door to door singing verses of a song competitively with the occupants. Once the occupants missed a verse in the pwnco, the men would rush in and cause mischief. Then they would want to be rewarded with food and drink.

Auld Lang Syne

“Auld Lang Syne” has gradually replaced the centuries-old “Good night an’ joy be wi’ you a’” in Scotland, and of course came to be known all over the English-speaking world. In a letter from 1788 to his friend Mrs Dunlop, Robert Burns wrote,

“ ‘Your meeting which you so well describe with your old schoolfellow and friend was truly interesting. Out upon the ways of the world! They spoil these ‘social offsprings of the heart.’ Two veterans of the ‘men of the world’ would have met with little more heart-workings than two old hacks worn out on the road. Apropos, is not the Scotch phrase Auld lang syne exceedingly expressive? There is an old song and tune which has often thrilled through my soul. You know I am an enthusiast in old Scotch songs. I shall give you the verses on the other sheet . . .”

He later claimed that he had discovered the tune from an old man’s singing and that it had never been in print. Adding two verses of his own in Scots dialect, he sent the song to his colleague, James Johnson. Johnson was publishing volumes of The Scots Musical Museum, as he collected Scots folk tunes. In 1796 in volume 6 appeared Burns’ piece, some 6 months after Burns’ death (there is evidence that Burns saw it in the proof stage, somewhat spoiling the tragi-ironic tone!).

Johnson had hesitated because the original melody had appeared previously in the same collection to lyrics by Allan Ramsay that went, “Should auld acquaintance be forgot / Tho’ they return with scars?” One source for the lyrics of the Burns piece might be a folk ballad of 1568, “Auld Kyndnes Forgett.” Or a poem by Sir Robert Aytton, from 1711, “Should auld acquaintance be forgot, / And never thought upon.” Or a late 17th century street song, “On old long syne / On old long syne, my jo, / On old long syne: / That those canst never once reflect / On old long syne .” Today’s tune was selected by George Thomson, a tune known as “The Miller’s Wedding” or “The Miller’s Daughter” published between 1759 and 1780.

It was Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians who first played it on their New Year’s Eve radio broadcast in 1929, doing much to popularize it. It is used as a graduation song in Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan, and for funerals in Taiwan.

Customs from Other Lands

From the 18th century in the US, making calls on New Year’s Day was customary. Robert Segwick made a total of 63 calls in 5 hours in New York City. From the terms of John Adams to Herbert Hoover, annual New Year’s Day “levées” were held. In France, New Year’s is a time for exchanging presents between adults (traditionally, only children receive presents at Christmas) and New Year’s cards. Friends also have dinner parties and eat rich fare. It is also amusing to note that the original New Year in the French calendar, using the Old Calendar, would have been, as we discussed, the Annunciation. Therefore, a joke was made that people were still receiving New Year’s gifts, rather late, on April 1st. This is why April 1st became April Fool’s Day, or Poisson d’Avril. In France, a big deal is made of it, with paper fishes being taped to people’s backs and the shop windows full of giant chocolate fishes. Did you know that the Times Square ball is made of Waterford crystal and that it was a tradition that began in 1907? Did you know that in some southern states, it is considered good luck to eat black-eyed peas and ham hocks (“Hoppin’ John”)? Finally, in some South American countries, the Spanish tradition of eating 12 grapes on the stroke of midnight for good luck is still practiced.

There is a hilarious description of American New Year’s at this Australian website: http://www.fathertimes.net/traditions.htm

from BLUE
happy new year—
pine needles silting
the paving cracks
Nigel Jenkins

“Auld Lang Syne.”

“Hogmanay FAQ.”

No comments:

Post a Comment