While assisting a group of Queen Anne and Magnolia residents of Scottish descent in planning a New Year's Eve Party, the subject of ancient Scottish traditions arose.
In Scotland, where Christmas is not as much observed, the great celebration is Hogmanay, taking place the last day of the year. The name is of French derivation, a cry used in connection with New Year's gifts. Hogmanay is a time of much merrymaking and toasting. All must be made ready for the Hogmanay celebration, enjoyed by families in their own homes.
No chore must be left undone, no darn unstitched, no dish unwashed. The house must be made spotless in time for the Ceilidh (pronounced KAY-lee, Gaelic for "party"), when the pipers are invited in to enjoy shortbread, Dundee cake and Atholbroth. Atholbroth is a delicious Scottish libation consisting of milk (in which oatmeal has been soaked), cream, honey and the inevitable Scotch whiskey.
At the stroke of midnight the door is opened to let out the old year and let in the New, and to welcome the ancient custom of "First Footing." Like so many customs, First Footing is a survivor of a much earlier age. The ritual has to do with the first man to come into the house through the front door - a dark young man, bearing gifts of bread, shortbread, coal, salt and a bottle of whiskey; these are presented to the host to bring health, warmth and prosperity in the coming year. Tradition has it that he must be a dark young man because if he were tall and blond, he could have been a Viking or Saxon raider, and therefore would not be welcome. They were so given to bringing pillage and destruction, after all.
The feast and the toasting and the Scottish dancing continue until the wee hours, when the town band goes around playing a good New Year to Ahn and all. In Glasgow, the greeting is "Lang may your Lumm reak," or long may your chimney smoke - that is, may you be warm and cozy.
Maybe it's just as well that New Year's Day is a public holiday in Scotland. To the rest of the British Isles it is a normal working day, because they get Boxing Day, the day after Christmas.
There are many traditional customs and legends associated with Twelfth Night, such as the Holy Thorn at Glastonbury in Somerset, where King Arthur is supposedly buried and the legend of the Holy Grail originated.
It is said that when Joseph of Arimathea ended his wanderings with the Holy Grail at Glastonbury and planted his staff in the ground; tradition has it that the staff bloomed on Christmas Eve. Joseph carried cuttings to various parts of the West Country; at least six of the resulting specimens are said to exist in Herefordshire today, blossoming exactly at midnight on Twelfth Night. This custom enerated many visitors, and legend has it that an old woman was cured of great affliction by picking a spray of blossom from the Holly Thorn on Twelfth Night.
Another Twelfth Night tradition, the Rugby football games, is said to have originated not with the gentleman player of Rugby (that is, Rugby School) but with Lady Mowbray and her hood. Many hundreds of years ago, Lady Mowbray had her hood blown off when riding to Haxey Church, and 12 laborers rushed to capture it. She gave a piece of ground, now called the Hoodlands, to provide a hood to be thrown up annually at Twelfth Night and to be fought for. The game is said to have developed into the present Rugby football.
The comedian Thomas Baddeley, in 1795, left in his will money to provide cake and wine for the performers of his theater, Drury Lane. The cake is presented and cut on stage annually on Twelfth Night at Drury Lane in London with much pomp and ceremony, an observance that continues to this day.
There are many more Twelfth Night customs that we will save for next year. But let's go back to Scotland and Hogmanay and, in the words of Robbie Burns, the immortal Scottish Bard, "drink a cup of kindness yet for the sake of Auld Lang Syne."
That song - a toast and a good wish that ends every Scottish party, and especially New Year's - means "for old times' sake." So whether you're planning First Footing at your own home or a celebration at the Space Needle, here's wishing you a very happy, healthy, prosperous and safe 2005. I won't say "Lang may your Lumm reak" because of pollution rules, just the usual ...