I don’t remember ever being made to have a bath because it was Christmas, but it was a sure part of my childhood experience of New Year.
I’m from Scotland, where New Year is an important event. Christmas was abolished in Scotland at the Reformation in the 16th century. Almost all religious festivals were thought of as Roman superstitions, so away with them. People looked elsewhere for a mid-winter celebration, and the change from one year to the next became the focus.
Over the centuries Christmas grew back in importance. Christmas trees reappeared, and presents were exchanged. But a few decades back Christmas still wasn’t the main event. My father worked on Christmas Day. Some shops opened for business. The big event in Scotland was New Year, and especially Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve).
A key idea was that you shouldn’t carry anything undesirable into another year. All debts should be paid. The house had to be cleaned from top to bottom. And my brother and I were scrubbed clean.
The other strong thought was to be home with family (like Thanksgiving in the States). People traveled hundreds of miles to share New Year with kith and kin. Often there were parties. A lot of whisky was drunk. Near midnight people would quieten down. On the stroke of 12, glasses would be raised; hugs, kisses and handshakes exchanged, and all would wish everyone “A guid New Year….”
Then came the important matter of first-footing, being the first to lay foot over a neighbor’s threshold in the New Year. Tradition said it had to be a man, and he must be tall, dark and handsome. (I never qualified.) He should bring something to drink (probably whisky), something to eat (often shortbread) and something to warm the fire (usually a lump of coal). First-footing–on icy, often snow-covered roads and sidewalks–might last until dawn.
These days Scots celebrate Christmas and New Year. They want the best of both. But New Year will always feel particularly special–in recent times half a million have gathered in the centre of Edinburgh, beneath the famous castle, to “see in” the New Year together.
I’ve led New Year “watchnight” services in church, worshipping and praying as the clock ticked past midnight. It’s been deeply meaningful. And then we’d go home to family, to a party or to first-foot friends!
Traditions run very deep. These days I live in England, very much a separate nation when it comes to Hogmanay. So I especially miss Scotland at New Year. I’m uneasy about being away from my homeland and absent from family. Maybe I should still pay off a few debts. Oh yes, and have a bath.
Alistair Brown is general director of BMS World Mission.