Sunday, January 2, 2011


Home baked scones are an important part of the Scottish New Year as is whiskey and coal brought in by the first-footer.

Hogmanay (pronounced hugmene) is the Scots word for the last day of the year and is synonymous with the celebration of the New Year's Eve and Day in the Scottish manner. It is, however, normally only the start of a celebration which lasts through the night until the morning of New Year's Eve and Day.

The ritual of linking arms at New Year's parties at my parent's were both celebrating the new year while saying good-bye to the old one and those who weren't going another year with us. The Hogmanay custom of singing "Auld Lang Syne" " has become common in many countries. "Auld Lang Syne" is a traditional poem reinterpreted by Robert Burns , which was later set to music. It is now common for this to be sung in a circle of linked arms that are crossed over one another as the clock strikes midnight for New Year's Day. Typically it is only in Scotland this practice is carried out correctly.

People travel to Scotland from all over the world to participate in the country's special holiday.

As a Scottish immigrant living in San Francisco my family celebrated Hogmanay – Scottish New Year with many rituals and special foods. I had to include it in my book, ‘THE SKYE IN JUNE” and here is an excerpt of that chapter: (not present cover of book, but original photo idea. Photo by Jerry Briesach)

 Hogmanay in San Francisco

Cathy dunked her cloth into the bucket and stopped washing the bay windows as she meditated over the soapy bubbles and remembered past New Year’s Eves in Scotland. The days before the event were always very busy with giving the house a thorough cleaning, as was the tradition. It was thought that starting the New Year with a tidy and neat house would bring good luck. Besides hauling the carpets downstairs to the backyard for a hard beating to clean them, all bedding and curtains were taken to the steamie, as Laundromats are called in Scotland. On the family’s last Hogmanay in Glasgow, it was decided that Annie was old enough to help out while Granny B watched the young bairns. Cathy and Annie pushed the baby pram[1] crammed full of curtains and linens along the streets, meeting other mothers and daughters on the same journey.

After waiting in line in the December chill they bought a ticket to enter the huge steamy room, smelling of wet clothes and soap. The steamie was full of women and girls, laughing and gossiping as they scrubbed their laundry on the washing board. Piece by piece they scrubbed up and down in big sinks filled with hot water, and then wrung it all out by hand. They hung the laundry on wall racks for drying, and placed larger items in big, hot cupboards that were pulled out of the wall. The gossiping and joking never stopped. The work was hard, but the excitement of the upcoming holiday created a festive atmosphere.

In reflection, Cathy realized how much she missed those times, especially the companionship of her mother and sisters-in-law at the holidays. Still, she as was excited as the girls were about the party. With every wipe of the window, she assured herself that her family would be blessed anew.

Jimmy and Cathy painted the living room and hallway a fresh coat of white paint with deep green on the wainscot and molding.

As the day grew closer to Hogmanay, Cathy along with her friends, Mrs. G and Mrs. G's daughter, Tesia shopped up and down Castro Street for the essential ingredients for the special Hogmanay foods that they would make.

Laughter and gossip erupted anytime the kitchen door opened as the women prepared the feast. When Cathy related funny tales of the steamie, the other women laughed heartily. The girls listened with merry curiosity as the adults reminisced about “home,” each telling her own story about life in Poland or Scotland.

With the cooking underway, Mrs. G and Tesia agreed with Cathy when she said it was good that the girls would learn the proper preparation of the Scottish foods.

“We must not forget our customs,” Mrs. G said adamantly. The other women nodded their heads affirmatively at her wisdom.

When it was time to bake the sweets June helped Annie roll out the dough for the cookies with a large rolling pin that Granny B had gifted Annie, before leaving Scotland.

The girls happily tested the freshly baked buttery shortbread, sugar cookies and the Dundee cake—a Hogmanay special. Mrs. G showed them how to decorate the cookies with sugar frosting by dipping a butter knife into hot water and carefully running it over the top of the frosting to give it a shinny glaze.

The women sipped glasses of sherry that would later be used for making the trifle pudding, which was a favorite holiday dessert made with cake, peaches soaked in wine and boiled custard poured all over it.

The baked goods were stored away and attention was turned to the main courses. Stewed meat with thick brown gravy was placed into deep pans. Annie used Granny B’s rolling pin to make a thin crust for the top of the pans. She then brushed a raw egg across the top so it would bake to a perfect golden brown, just the way Granny would have wanted it.

By the day of the party, steak pies, a large ham, the delicate trifle pudding and other delicious holiday foods lined the shelves in the Frigidaire, ready to be heated up when needed.

With the kitchen work finished, the girls hung colorful streamers throughout the flat, and dangled fun paper party hats from them. Jimmy held Maggie up to hang a piece of mistletoe at the front door. This custom was not for kissing, like at Christmas, but to prevent illness in the household.

It was a fun time in the MacDonald house. Since many of the guests also had young children, the party would start in the early afternoon of New Year’s Day. The girls were so excited they stayed up until midnight, giggling and talking before falling asleep. The next morning they hurried home from the special New Year’s Day Mass to change into their party clothes, readying themselves for the guests arriving at noon.

With the chime of the doorbell, everyone ran off to greet the first guest. They hurried into position, eager to view the first footer waiting downstairs at the door to the building. They were ready for a dark-haired man to walk through the door, signaling good luck in the New Year. What they saw was Sandy’s thinning blonde hair as he stepped over the threshold and into the lobby of the building.

“Sandy! For God’s sake, get out, man!” Jimmy yelled down to him.

The mistake was Mark’s fault.

It had been pre-arranged by Jimmy that the first foot would be Ian, a Scottish friend who was a tall man with black hair. But before Ian could step into the building, Mark had pushed ahead of him. As Sandy reached past Ian to pull his son back, he had stumbled through the door when it opened. As fate would have it, light haired, balding Sandy was the first person with a foot in the MacDonald’s building on Hogmanay.

The girls hung over the banister booing boisterously at Mark as his father backed out, dragging his son by the scruff of the neck. Ian bounded up the stairs. Hoping to smooth over the error, he adamantly protested that he did indeed have the first foot in the flat. He handed Jimmy the traditional Hogmanay gifts.

“Fattie brattie Marky,” said Maggie mockingly when Mark dashed by.

Huffing and puffing, Nancy arrived at the top of the landing and, in her loud American voice, scolded the Scots on how silly they were to be so superstitious.

A stout Scottish woman coming up behind her said, “Wheesht, silly woman.”

At first, guests were a bit sober from the unexpected event but it didn’t last for long. The adults soon had a few glasses of cheer and the party began.

More guests arrived, singing out the traditional Hogmanay greeting, “A good year to you!” They brought gifts of food and spirits—whiskey, malt beer and gin. As the day went on, the story about the blonde first foot made its rounds and the celebrators kidded about what kind of bad luck might befall the MacDonalds in the coming year.

The mood lightened and the singing of Scottish songs became the main activity. Each person had a turn to entertain by singing a favorite tune. Before the party ended, and in keeping with another Hogmanay tradition, the adults and children stood in a circle crisscrossing hands, right over left, and sang the famous Scottish song, “Auld Lang Syne.” June was bewildered as the adults’ laughing voices changed to sad tones. Some of the women cried openly as they sang together, “Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and the days of auld lang syne!”


To learn about my books and me at
The Skye in June - City of Redemption, The Timeless Counselor, How to Talk With Spirits

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