Hogmanay: Scotland's Winter Celebration

Costumed Revelers at Hogmanay in Scotland
Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebrations include a torchlight procession.

Roberto Ricciuti / Redferns / Getty Images

Hogmanay (pronounced hog-ma-NAY) is the Scottish holiday that celebrates the new year. Observed on December 31, festivities typically spill over into the first couple of days of January. In fact, there's a tradition known as "first-footing," in which the first person to enter a home brings the residents good luck for the coming year — of course, the guest must be dark-haired and preferably male; redheads and women aren't nearly as lucky!

Etymology of the Word "Hogmanay"

Where did the word "Hogmanay" come from, anyway? There are a few different theories about the origins and etymology. Rampant Scotland says,

"The Scandinavian word for the feast preceding Yule was Hoggo-nott while the Flemish words (many have come into Scots) hoog min dag means "great love day." Hogmanay could also be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon, Haleg monath, Holy Month, or the Gaelic, oge maidne, new morning. But the most likely source seems to be the French. Homme est né or "Man is born" while in France the last day of the year when gifts were exchanged was aguillaneuf, while in Normandy presents given at that time were hoguignetes."

Author Clement A. Miles says in Christmas in Ritual and Tradition that this tradition stems from back when a red- or blonde-haired stranger was probably an invading Norseman. Gifts are exchanged, and one of the popular food items on the Hogmanay menu is the black bun, which is a really rich fruitcake.

Gary Marshall at Metro UK says that Hogmanay is a pretty big deal because

"Until very recently, Scots didn’t do Christmas. The party-loving Protestant Reformation effectively banned Christmas for 400 years, and Christmas Day didn’t even become a public holiday in Scotland until 1958 and Boxing Day didn’t become a holiday until 1974. So while the rest of the world celebrated Christmas, Scots toiled. Their family get-togethers happened at Hogmanay instead."

Local Celebrations

In addition to national observance, many local areas have their own customs when it comes to celebrating Hogmanay. In the town of Burghead, Moray, an ancient tradition called "burning the clavie" takes place each year on January 11. The clavie is a big bonfire, fueled primarily by split casks. One of these is joined back together with a big nail, filled with flammable material, and lit on fire. Flaming, it's carried around the village and up to a Roman altar known to residents as the Douro. The bonfire is built around the clavie. When the burnt clavie crumbles, the locals each grab a lit piece to kindle a fire in their own hearth.

Hogmanay, Edinburgh, Scotland, New Years Eve 2009
VisitBritain/Gareth Easton / Getty Images

In Stonehaven, Kincardineshire, the locals make giant balls of tar, paper and chicken wire. These are attached to several feet of chain or wire, and then set on fire. A designated "swinger" whirls the ball around his head and walks through the village streets to the local harbor. At the end of the festival, any balls still on fire are cast into the water. This is quite an impressive sight in the dark!

The town of Biggar, Lanarkshire, celebrates with a bonfire. In the early 1940s, one or two locals complained about the size of the fire, and celebration organizers agreed to have a smaller fire. This was erected as promised, but before it was lit, the local traditionalists trucked in cartload after cartload if coal and wood, making a giant pyre, which then burned for a whopping five days before running out of fuel!

The Presbyterian church has disapproved of Hogmanay in the past, but the holiday still enjoys a great deal of popularity. If you get a chance to visit Scotland over the winter holidays and want to celebrate with the locals, check out this link for all things Hogmanay-related: Hogmanay.net.

In August 2016, the Aberdeen Press and Journal reported that one of Scotland's biggest Hogmanay celebrations, the Stonehaven Open Air in the Square, would be cancelled. The article cites organizers' claims that the downturn in oil and gas has had a negative effect on sponsorship.

"The committee claim they are the latest victim of the ongoing North Sea oil and gas crisis. A spokeswoman for the organising committee said: “The event has been cancelled and all money has been refunded. We rely heavily on sponsorship as ticket sales don’t cover the organisation costs, but none have come forward because of the current economic climate. We hope to have it up and running again next year, unless any sponsors come forward this year.”
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Wigington, Patti. "Hogmanay: Scotland's Winter Celebration." Learn Religions, Aug. 28, 2020, learnreligions.com/hogmanay-scotlands-winter-celebration-2562990. Wigington, Patti. (2020, August 28). Hogmanay: Scotland's Winter Celebration. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/hogmanay-scotlands-winter-celebration-2562990 Wigington, Patti. "Hogmanay: Scotland's Winter Celebration." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/hogmanay-scotlands-winter-celebration-2562990 (accessed March 30, 2023).