Welcoming the dark visitor on Hogmanay

Hogmanay in the Scottish Highlands is the culminating celebration of the year, the final bacchanal before the return to work. Hogmanay, or in Gaelic Oidhche Challuinn in Scotland, is the term for New Year’s Eve. It is also the term for a repast or a present given on that day. Hogmanay in the Highlands and Islands to the west of Scotland was marked by ceremony and gaiety that hinted at its roots in pagan ritual and sacrifice.
Hogmanay was the primary winter solstice festival in the Highlands because Christmas was banned in Scotland from the late 1600s to the 1950s by the Protestant church, which considered it a papish holiday. It is a time of wiping clean the slate, manifested by traditions such as cleaning the house, taking out ashes and clearing all debts before midnight. The new year must begin on a happy note, making a clean break.
On New Year’s Eve in the Highlands, first-footers made their rounds. Men and boys went house to house in the township carrying dried cowhides and chanting rhymes, beating skins with sticks and striking walls of houses with clubs, which was believed to avert evil and keep at bay fairies and evil spirits.
In Galloway in the southwest of Scotland, people went door-to-door asking in rough rhymes for cakes or money. The occupants gave drink to the first person who entered the house after midnight, called the first-footer. Preferably the first-footer should be male and dark, a possible holdover from the days of Viking invasions when blond strangers were nothing but trouble. First-footers carried coal, shortbread, salt, black bun (a spiced cake) and whiskey.
An example of the Duan Challuinn, the Hogmanay poem, quoted in Anne Ross’ “Folklore of the Scottish Highlands,” was chanted by the first-footers:
Great good luck to the house,
Good luck to the family,
Good luck to every rafter of it,
And to every worldly thing in it.
Good luck to horses and cattle,
Good luck to the sheep,
Good luck to everything,
And good luck to all of your means.
Luck to the good-wife,
Good luck to the children,
Good luck to every friend,
Great fortune and health to all.

Ross describes two types of visitation. In one, the duan was spoken outside the house and described the ritual of approaching and entering the house. Another was sung after the house had been entered, when the caisean Calluig, the Hogmanay hide, was beaten. The boys who took part were called gillean Callaig, the Hogmanay Lads. One was covered with a bull hide to which horns and hooves were still attached and climbed to the flat edge of a house’s thatched roof and ran round it sunwise. Others would strike him with sticks.
The rhyme while the hide was being struck was spoken in Gaelic:
Hogmanay of the sack, Hogmanay of the sack,
Strike the hide, strike the hide,
Hogmanay of the sack, Hogmanay of the sack,
Beat the skin, beat the skin,
Hogmanay of the sack, Hogmanay of the sack,
Down with it! Up with it!
Strike the hide.
Hogmanay of the sack, Hogmanay of the sack,
Down with it! Up with it!
Beat the skin.
Hogmanay of the sack, Hogmanay of the sack.

Another carol or chant was sung at door of the house praising in anticipation the occupants’ generosity. Afterwards, the Hogmanay Lads were given hospitality in the house, and they walked sunwise around the fire and were given a bannock, a fruit bun or oatcake, and other traditional refreshments: oatmeal, bread and cheese, meat and a dram of whiskey.
Cheese was believed to have magical properties. A slice of the Caise Calluinn, or Christmas Cheese, called the laomacha, was preserved. A slice with a hole was best. New Year’s games involved predicting the future, avoiding behavior that would lead to a death, and determining the name of one’s future spouse.
After a day of rest on La Challiunn, or New Year’s Day, people return to the chores of everyday living. But in Scotland, they have Burns celebrations to anticipate, the dinners and parties at the end of January honoring Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, composer of “Auld Lang Syne.”

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