Thursday, December 31, 2015


Happy Hogmanay All! 

Some rituals:
  The first-foot to cross your threshold in the New Year is 
to be a tall, dark haired man to set the luck for the rest of the year.
Gifts to Bring a Scot on New Year: A Coin, Shortbread, Black Bun, Salt, Coal, and Whisky,  
which represent financial prosperity, food, flavour, warmth, and good cheer respectively
 The Chapter from my book,  The Skye in June, (see below) will give some other rituals the Scots do at the end and beginning of the New Year. In it you will learn how immigrants continue their special rituals and celebrations in their new countries. We did in our household. Enjoy!

"Skye" is about a Scottish immigrant family living in San Francisco (mid 1950's to early days of the '60's). Read more about the story at june ahern dot com. Available in eBook or paperback. Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes and Noble.

Click the link under the photo to learn more about Hogmanay origins and celebrations.

Recent interview of me:

THE MACDONALDS PLANNED to host their first party in America on New Year’s Eve, 1955. The family worked together to spruce up their flat in the weeks before the gathering.

Cathy busily washed the bay windows with June at her side, trying to be helpful. The soapy water dripped down the girl’s arms and into her rolled-up sleeves. Behind them they could hear Annie supervising the Irish Twins, who were shrieking with laughter. Their job was to bring the newly waxed hardwood floors to a bright sheen by skating back and forth across it with rags tied around their feet. Cathy suppressed a laugh as she glimpsed Maggie rushing to catch up with Mary who was whirling down the hallway with an unraveling rag wrapped around her foot. She decided to keep quiet about any pending disaster. The last thing she wanted to do was to upset Annie’s position of authority over the mischievous girls.

“We have to make the house nice and clean for all the people coming. Is that right, Mommy?” June asked.

“That’s right, my wee clootie dumpling,” Cathy said.

She smiled at her daughter’s newly adopted fashion of wrapping her hair in a headscarf, copied from Mrs. G who wore one when cleaning house. Bending over to squeeze out her cleaning rag, Cathy watched June’s determined face as she carefully scrubbed at the glass. Her mind drifted back to when the idea of having a party on Hogmanay first arose. 

Sandy and Nancy had invited the MacDonalds to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner with them; a new holiday for the immigrant family. Nancy was a fabulous cook and prepared an array of dishes that they had never before tasted. Besides the large, golden brown turkey, there were steaming bowls of food. Jimmy congratulated the cook, saying she had “laid a table fit for a king” as he filled his plate with the pasta, creamed corn, stuffing and cranberry sauce. But before he dug in, Cathy nudged him to wait.

Nancy halted Mark from scooping food into his mouth with an announcement that each person give thanks to God for something special in their life.

Before we eat, darling,” she reminded her son.

He quickly said, “Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub. Let’s eat!” But only his parents laughed.
When it came to June, she prayed Granda and Granny B would visit for Christmas. Her wish brought up a conversation during dinner about past holidays in Scotland. Jimmy said how much fun the Scottish New Year was. Annie, who was old enough to remember, reminded her father that in Scotland, the New Year celebration was called Hogmanay.

“What a holiday it is! We have special things––traditions, like paying off debts before the first of January,” Sandy told the children in seriousness.

“We won’t have to worry about that tradition, eh, Jimmy?” Cathy said. Her husband didn’t believe in accumulating debts and lived frugally, day-by-day. He prided himself in being able to send weekly payments to Granda B for the money he had loaned them to make their move to America possible.

“Mommy, what were the parties like at Hogmanay?” June said, crucifying the name the Scots called New Year’s Eve. It sounded like she said, “Hug many.”

The adults laughed so cheerfully that she joined in, thinking how happy everyone was with her question. She sat up in her chair, eager to hear about Scotland. Unlike Annie, who held on tightly to her remembrances of Scotland, June’s memories of life there were fading.

The three adult Scots began to reminisce about Hogmanay. The descriptions of the holiday spilled out across the dining table as Jimmy, Sandy and Cathy related their stories about Scotland’s most popular holiday, which was celebrated as though it were a religious event.

When Jimmy said the streets of Glasgow were busy with people going from house to house starting on New Year’s Eve, visiting and bringing gifts, June gathered that Hogmanay was like Halloween night.

“What kind of gifts?” she asked.

Annie piped in, “Granny always baked special things like holiday oat cakes and black buns.”

“Whiskey cake and her famous shortbread. Oh yum!” Cathy jumped in, winking at her daughters as she licked her lips and made a wide circle on her belly.

“Good whiskey,” Jimmy added.

Sandy told a story about the time they went bathing in the Clyde River, just to see who could endure the cold water the longest. “It was so bloody frigid. If it hadn’t been for the whiskey keeping my blood moving and Cathy’s brother, Peter, jumping in to pull me out…”

Nancy interrupted the story with a sharp, “Sandy! That’s not a good example for the children.”

“Right dear. We were silly boys then. It’s a very dangerous thing to do,” he said seriously.

Cathy covered her smiling lips with a napkin and made big eyes at her daughters.

“Tell us more, Mommy,” June said, enjoying the cheery conversation.

Her mother clasped her hands and placed them on the table in front of her, her blue eyes glittering in the candlelight. Everyone sat still and listened as Cathy’s soft Scottish voice told the story.

“There’s a very special ritual on Hogmanay that begins at midnight on New Year’s Eve, acted out in the homes across Scotland. It’s customary that the first guest, called the first foot, enters a home shortly after midnight. It’s tradition that the first foot is a dark haired man who comes bearing gifts. It’s usually a lump of coal to keep the host’s home warm through the long cold winter and a bottle of Scotch to warm their souls.”

Jimmy interrupted, “Ye hope it’s a dark haired man who enters first, because then you’d have good luck throughout the upcoming year.”

Cathy kept talking, “Girls, your Granda B was a most welcomed guest as the first foot because he was tall and had black hair.” She was looking dreamily into the candle flame. “Until his hair turned white, that is.” Although she said it lightly, June sensed sadness in her mother’s voice.

“Aye, he was always the life of the party, getting everybody to sing and the ladies up for a dance. It’s his favorite holiday,” Jimmy said nostalgically.

The room quieted as the storytellers became lost in their own memories.

Mark’s demand for a piece of Nancy’s delicious pumpkin pie made his mother jump up from the table to take orders. “With or without ice cream,” she asked everyone. 

June didn’t want the enchanting Hogmanay tales to end. As the orders for pie were made, she asked, “Can we have a party?”

Her sisters cheered the idea loudly.

Jimmy and Cathy looked at each other across the table. She hesitated, fearful of letting down the girls if she took a spell of depression.

“No a bad idea,” he said enthusiastically.

Looking at the girls’ excited faces staring at her, it was hard not to give in to them. Cathy decided that celebrating Hogmanay in America would start a family tradition in their new country.
* * *

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 believed that starting the New Year with a tidy and clean 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 Annie was old enough to help out, while Granny B watched the younger bairns. Cathy and Annie pushed the pram, the large ornate baby carriage, 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 boards. 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 was as excited as the girls were about the party. With every wipe of the window, she assured herself that her family would be blessed anew.

A loud thump from her new Westinghouse washing machine on the back porch of the flat interrupted her daydream. She tossed her washrag into the pail and went to deal with the problem.

June proudly presented Mrs. G with an invitation to their party. “It’s for your whole family,” she exclaimed.

Mrs. G accepted the invite, saying that she, her daughter, Tesia, and her son-in-law would be most honored to attend. Later that day Mrs. G insisted Cathy accept a gift from her: she and Tesia would help with the preparations. Cathy gladly accepted, relieved to have the women’s help. The things that still needed to be done overwhelmed her.

Jimmy and Sandy painted the living room and hallway with a fresh coat of white paint and deep green on the wainscot and molding. Cathy used Mrs. G’s sewing machine to make drapes and curtains for the bay windows. She chose a rich burgundy color for the drapes that went well with the green paint and lacey white curtains that would hang beneath them.

When all was finished, Cathy and Jimmy watched their girls dance around with glee, exclaiming, 

“We have a house like a rich person.” They indeed felt richly blessed with their new life.

The most welcomed gift of all was Mrs. G’s offer to make new holiday dresses for the girls. At first, Cathy declined the generous offer, having noticed how easily the old woman tired. But Mrs. G insisted. She worked at her kitchen table making the dresses. June helped by running around the table and tidying up unused material and pieces of thread.

Once the dresses were finished, the old woman invited Cathy down to look at them. “I make a party dress for you, too,” Mrs. G said, pointing to a dress hanging on the back of a door.

What Cathy saw took her breath away. She ran her fingers gingerly over the fine French stitching on the hem of a dove-gray satin dress that had an authentic store-bought look. In an unusual display of emotion, Cathy threw her arms around Mrs. G.

As the day grew closer to Hogmanay, the MacDonald females and Mrs. G shopped up and down Castro Street for the essential ingredients for the special Hogmanay foods that they would make.

Laughter and gossip erupted any time 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 that it was an idea good for the girls to 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 shiny glaze.

“Mommy, see how fancy?” Maggie said, surveying the platter of cookies.

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 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 evening of New Year’s Eve. The girls were so excited they stayed up until late the night before, giggling and talking before falling asleep. The next morning they hurried around the house finishing last minute household chores before changing into their party clothes, readying themselves for the guests.

Cathy brushed each of the girls’ hair until it shined, or, in June’s case, laid down and stayed in place with two pretty yellow barrettes on each side. She decorated her other daughters’ hair with ribbons the same color as their dresses.

Annie wore a forest-green dress with gold threads running through it. Maggie wore a dress of plush cranberry velvet and Mary donned a soft champagne lace dress that emphasized the gold in her brown eyes.

“Oh Mary, we must get a picture of you for Granda! You look lovely,” Cathy said.

June’s royal blue tunic and white blouse vividly accentuated her blue eyes and red hair. “Heel, toe, heel, toe,” June said gleefully as she tap danced into the living room to show her father her new outfit.

“You’re beautiful, pet!” he gushed over her.

June’s heart soared and her face radiated with joy from the rare kind attention from her father.
Cathy, too, had on her new dress. The dove-gray satin dress had three large onyx buttons on the bodice that ended at her waist, cinched smaller by a wide black belt. The skirt puffed out with help from the petticoat borrowed from Tesia. The wide v-neck collar showed off a necklace of cut glass that sparkled like diamonds. The necklace was a surprise Christmas present from Jimmy, who usually gave her practical gifts.

“Cocktail, honey?” Jimmy called out from the kitchen. The girls, who were in the kitchen opening 
Coca-Colas, giggled at his use of the word honey, an American endearment.

With her satin dress swishing, Cathy entered the kitchen. Jimmy whistled, “My God, woman, ye look smashing! You’ll be the belle of the ball,” he kissed her cheek, not wanting to mess up her red lipstick.

The girls stared at their mother in awe. Maggie said she looked like a movie star.

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 enter in the early evening and not wait until midnight so the children could join in the ritual. Jimmy had asked 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 MacDonalds’ 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.

“Fatty, bratty 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 blond first foot made its rounds and the celebrators kidded about what kind of bad luck might befall the MacDonalds in the coming year.

Inspired, June rushed down the hallway and came back into the living room with the picture of her angel and a roll of Scotch tape. She asked Uncle Sandy to put it up on the wall. When it was secure, Ian’s wife exclaimed, “Look. Doesn’t it remind you of back home in Skye? Especially around the Dunvegan area?”

“Aye, could be. Och, with those flowers, could be anywhere in Skye,” Ian answered, returning to his plate of food and glass of whiskey. 

June looked at him curiously, wondering, flowers in the sky? Maybe Uncle Ian is like me. Maybe he can see things other people don’t.? She reminded herself to ask Mrs. G if she ever saw flowers in the sky.

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!

When June saw Annie’s eyes mist over, she asked, “You going to cry?” Annie shook her head and bit her lower lip and pulled her hands away from the chain. June thought she heard her say, “Granny.”

After the guests gathered up their coats and children and said good-bye, Jimmy told the girls to go to bed. In the bedroom June asked Annie why people were sad singing the last song. Her sister explained they were sad to be so far away from their families. She said part of the song asked if people were supposed to forget their old friends and the times they shared together.

“I’ll never, ever forget Granda and Granny B and how good they were to us,” Annie said adamantly.
Maggie began to talk about the friends they left behind in Scotland. They agreed that Wee Gordie, their cousin, was like Mark––a spoiled brat. Auntie Patsy was their favorite aunt and Uncle Peter always said the funniest things. Helen was remembered with sad sighs and a collective, “We love you.” 

“Will we ever go back to Scotland?” Mary asked, her voice quivering. They knew how much she missed Granda B.

June piped up that someday she would go back and they could go with her. Excitedly, she added, “Granda B was at our party today. He came in before Uncle Sandy did and kissed Mommy.”

The sisters rolled their eyes simultaneously and groaned, “Oh, shut up.”

Mary added, “You’re going to get in trouble for making up big faker stories.”

June huffed, hurt that her sisters didn’t believe she saw Granda B. Before she could argue, their mother popped her head in the door, telling them to go to sleep if they wanted to go to Playland the next day to celebrate Annie’s tenth birthday. The light was switched off immediately.
* * * * *

“I LOVE A SAUSAGE,” June sang out gaily as she scampered down the long staircase to wher

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