For Auld Lang Syne

Roughly translated it means “times gone by” . My daughter went to a New Years party tonight and before she left I gave her a ziplock bag containing a piece of chocolate, a dollar, and a piece of wood. I had to explain the customs of Hogmanay night (the Scottish New Year) to her.

Years ago my Grandmother gave my father a piece of coal. On New Years Eve she would make him go outside right before midnight and after midnight he could come in carrying a bottle of whiskey and the coal and some coins. We’ve Americanized it some since those years but it is called “first-footing the house”. The first person through the door has to have items that symbolize prosperity, enough to eat, and heat for the home for the next year. Once, an uncle came into my Grandmother’s house before my Grandfather had a chance to “first-foot and he had nothing – that was the year the Great Depression began.

There are several ideas about the meaning of Hogmanay but the one I was taught was Holy Month and it had religious significance though it started way before Christianity came to the Scots. The early celebrations had folks dancing around fires and today they still have torch processions in some Scottish cities. It symbolizes bringing the light to the new year and leaving the darkness in the past. People often go in groups to each other’s houses “first-footing” the home and eating and drinking. Since this was done on foot it was probably a lot safer that our modern American celebrations which tend to end up with someone driving impaired.

A tour guide told me that the Celtic crosses that we see all over Scotland with the circle around the intersection originated with Saint Patrick who was trying to convert the pagans. He used the circle with the cross to impress the pagan sun and moon worshippers with the importance of the Cross.

Our tradition of making New Years resolutions comes from the Hogmanay tradition. The idea was to begin the new year with something good and leave all the bad of the past year behind. Though I don’t think haggis will ever catch on here it’s surprising to learn how many of our traditions come from people I’m proud to claim as ancestors.
The traditional New Years football games can even be traced to Scotland. In Orkney they play a game called the “ba”. At one in the afternoon Christmas day and New Years day a leather ball is thrown by a local official into a crowd of about two hundred folks divided by family loyalty into two groups, “uppies” and “doonies”. At the signal of the church chimes the leather ball is thrown and the two groups fight to move the “ba” up or down the street. I can’t imagine two hundred hungover Scots fighting over a leather ball and wouldn’t want to be in their way! Shop owners have shutters closed and cars, small children, and elderly folks stay well out of the way.

The original Auld lang Syne lyric is from a poem by Robbie Burns that contained more verses and seemed a little sadder to me though with the same general sentiments as the two verses we sing – remembering the past, and drinking a toast with friends.

I have tried and tried and can’t remember if we first-footed the house last year. Our luck wasn’t great this year so I’m making sure. My daughter will first-foot the house. A little history lesson, a tradition passed on, and a wish for my family and friends. May we all have enough next year. God bless and goodnight!