Europe 13 – Hogmanay

Hogmanay (1)


Edinburgh, Scotland


Hogmanay is the name Scots give to New Year’s Eve, although events are organized between December 29 and January 1

How long?

4 days

For a wild mix of fireworks, whisky, music and mass dancing, there’s nothing like the street party in Edinburgh to celebrate New Year’s Eve. They greet the arrival of New Year elsewhere around the world of course, but nowhere quite manages the blend of tradition, hedonism, sentimentality and enthusiasm achieved by the Scots; indeed, Edinburgh’s Hogmanay – as well as similar events in Glasgow, Aberdeen and all across Scotland – has become a major world event, with a mass of processions, concerts and parties taking place in the days leading up to and immediately after the night itself. It may have been dark since 3.30pm in the afternoon, and the rain may have turned to sleet, but there’s no better setting for a New Year’s knees- up, which sees over one-hundred-thousand people crammed into the Scottish capital with one thing on their mind: midnight.


The traditions behind Scotland’s attachment to partying at the end of December go back long before anyone decided there were 12 months in a year and 31 days in December.

When Christianity started to reach pagan parts, savvy missionaries realized that it didn’t help their cause much to upset established rituals, however heathen they might seem. So a fair amount of subtle reinvention went on, including changing the celebrations for the birth of the sun into celebrations for the birth of the Son. In this way, ancient pagan traditions got to run alongside rituals associated with the Mass for Christ, and everyone still got to party. The Protestants who controlled Scotland in the sixteenth century, however, took a dim view of this Catholic ritual, and Christmas was abolished, leaving the Scots no alternative but to revert to celebrating the more transparently secular winter solstice. No one really knows the origin of the word Hogmanay (though there are plenty who can bore for Scotland with their theories), but this soon became the name of Scotland’s special midwinter festival: houses were cleaned from top to bottom, debts were paid and quarrels made up, and, after the bells were rung at midnight, great store was set by welcoming good luck into your house. This still takes the form of the traditional first-footing – visiting your neighbours, bearing gifts. The ideal first-foot is a tall dark-haired male; women or redheads, on the other hand, bring bad luck – though no one carrying a bottle of whisky will be deemed to bring bad luck for long. All this neighbourly greeting meant that a fair bit of partying went on, of course, and after a while no one was expected to go to work the next day, or if the party was that good, the day after that either. Even today, January 1 is a public holiday in the rest of the UK, but only in Scotland does the holiday extend to the next day as well. In fact, right up to the 1950s Christmas was a normal working day for many folk in Scotland, and Hogmanay was widely regarded as by far the more important celebration.

The build-up

It’s a good idea to arrive Edinburgh a few days before Hogmanay, to catch the various events taking place, and it s worth giving yourself the chance to look around the city – for obvious reasons, sightseeing after the big night isn’t such a great idea. One of the most dramatic events in Edinburgh during the lead-up to Hogmanay is the torchlit procession down the historic Royal Mile on December 29. A popular family event, anyone can buy a flaming torch and join the crowd of around ten-thousand people as they walk from the Royal Mile to nearby Calton Hill, where a replica of a Viking longboat is set alight. Accompanied by drummers and other musicians, the event harks back to the pagan fire celebrations of the first Hogmanay revellers. On the night of December 30, a procession of pipers and drummers, resplendent in kilts and tartan finery, provides a memorable opening to the “Night Afore” celebrations, a pleasantly alternative warm-up to Hogmanay that, in recent years, has featured some bizarre and visually dramatic continental street theatre. If there’s a nip in the air, one way to get your circulation going is to head to the Scottish Ceilidh Stage, where you re encouraged to join in some traditional Scottish dances with names such as “Strip the Willow” and “The Dashing White Sergeant”. Elsewhere around town various special club nights, comedy acts and classical concerts take place in venues ranging from St Giles Cathedral to the honeycomb of haunted vaults under the Old Town. You’ll also find an open-air ice rink, a carnival with various stomach-turning rides, and a big wheel towering over Princes Street. Alternatively, you can settle into one of the hundreds of cosy Pubs around town and get into the right mood with a pint or two.

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