For my Scottish grandparents 31 December was the day to complete a thorough house-cleaning, especially fireplaces, in preparation for the big celebration tonight of clearing out the old year and welcoming the new. At the same time it was important to ensure all debts were cleared before midnight. The origin of Hogmanay is very ancient, but today's Scottish tradition probably owes most to Viking invaders and their Yule winter festival traditions.
I come from a long line of Scottish Presbyterians, who frowned on the celebration of Christmas as a 'Popish' or Roman Catholic feast. From the late 17th century to as late as the mid 20th century in some places, the Kirk virtually banned Christmas, which was not a public holiday for workers during the industrial revolution. Hogmanay was also disapproved of, but this clearly pagan festival continued underground and has now become bigger than ever with public celebrations like that in Edinburgh, from where my father's family originates.
My maternal grandmother was especially keen on preserving Hogmanay traditions. I think this was part of asserting her Scottish identity through many years living in Kuala Lumpur - not hard when her social circle included the many ex-patriot Scots of St Andrew's Presbyterian chuch, KL. From my childhood comes a strange blend of Hogmanay memories, including the very sober Watchnight Service in the Presbyterian church, but also a party with neighbours and family, with the singing of 'Auld Lang Syne' and kissing everyone after midnight, the arrival of the good looking and tall 'dark stranger' as the 'First Footer' bearing the traditional gifts (symbolising prosperity) of salt, a lump of coal, a bottle of whisky and a black bun.
A Scottish Black Bun is a lethal combination of a rich fruit cake encased in pastry. I often enjoyed this at my grandparents' home around New Year. There are many variations of this and lots of recipes on the internet if you want to try it - but you should have made it 6 weeks ago to mature sufficiently.
The lump of coal symbolises the wish 'Lang may your lum reek' (long may your chimney smoke) - an expression which can only be toasted with a 'wee dram' of the water of life (whisky). This toast is sometimes capped with "wi' ither folks' coal" which may or may not have originated in Edinburgh.
Tonight I will not be 1st footing - well, I'm a woman and some view the appearance of a female first-footer with superstitious dread. Also I'm neither tall nor dark. I might manage a 'wee dram' (though I dislike whisky) and a nod to Rabbie Burns and his most well-known 1788 poem. Or I might even be asleep, firework noise permitting.
Credit: Beacon on Flickr, Cc License