Thursday, 31 December 2009

A Secular Time

Tomorrow is just another day. Not. I am a Scot, partially by birth and partially by adoption. To no Scot whosoever, wheresoever, are today or tomorrow anything like normal days.

At Christmas Scotland strives for, and often fails at, good cheer, for the ghost of John Knox sits over all with Northumberland gloom, and mere materialism steps into the gulf even more readily than in England. Before the New Year, cheerfulness suddenly springs up in all its glory. It is natural to greet returning friends and former neighbours with cries of joy, blocking crowded supermarket aisles, while harassed shoppers ponder on just how much whisky, and lager, and ham and sausage rolls will ensure family and friends, and (even today) chance visitors will not go hungry, which actually means will not go without being stuffed to satiety.

There is a small frenzy of cleaning. Less than there used to be, but dear knows the Scots are particular at the best of times. Paintwork is washed down, floors vacuumed threadbare. And life is cleared out. The past year is reviewed. Its sorrows are brought to mind, and, in so far as they can be, dismissed. Guilt and remorse and misfortune are let go. Joys too are counted up.

There is a no-man’s-land between day and day. Most do not have to work then, but can rest. Now that time, nobody’s time, our own time, is transformed into a time of transition — part old year, and part new. It becomes Hogmanay. It starts in loss and expectation. And food and drink and dancing. It is a ceremony of letting go and drowning out — washing away if you like. And we do like it. Then comes ‘the Bells’. Midnight. The witching hour, the moment, the actual moment of transformation. The old year is finally dead, danced to death like a sacrifice. The new year is created. And the new year is beautiful, untrodden, pure. It stretches on and on. The daylight part of the First is liable to pass in a bit of a haze, even for non-drinkers, due to exhaustion. Those who managed doucely to bed at a reasonable hour of one or two in the morning set about creating a family feast. It is a day of new clothes and best dresses. The Second follows it, a public holiday in a country where most holidays are merely regional, and family and friends are visited, old jokes dusted off, and hopes for the new year counted out. And the third. From time to time Scots find themselves dragged back to their place of work on the third. Unhappy co-incidences of the calendar occasionally indicate it. That is not to say, of course, they actually do much work. It feels all wrong. And evenings are probably devoted to catching up with friends. Eating those sausage rolls before they go out of date. So, gradually, Scots re-enter life for a new start, with re-considered aspirations.

You understand it is a wholly secular time. Not.

Rosemary Hannah is a writer and historian living near Glasgow.

Posted by Rosemary Hannah on Thursday, 31 December 2009 at 5:50am GMT | TrackBack
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Not mentioned here, is a bizarre custom I remember related (~25 years ago?) by an African exchange student who spent New Year's in Scotland. Something about the "Darkest Person" (in any particular gathering) bringing good luck, and celebrated accordingly? [The African student was, as might be expected, the Darkest Person in every gathering he was in---though he said the Scots were at great pains to explain to him that this custom was NOT racist, and that plenty of native-born, "Mac-"named, dark-haired, brown-eyed Scots had acquired this title every year since time immemorial!]

Posted by: JCF on Thursday, 31 December 2009 at 9:15am GMT

Query: what does the term Hogmansy mean? Where does it come from? The celebration sounds grand!
Columba Gilliss

Posted by: Columba Gilliss on Thursday, 31 December 2009 at 2:10pm GMT

Thank you Rosemary for this comment. As an Englishman now living in Scotland, and my partners family Scots to their navel; what you say is so correct.

I get asked if today I will be hoovering the house etc. They look surprised when I say no, it will be done on its usual day. I hear the cry, but its New Year. So what! The calendar turns a day, a month, a year. Forget the church calendar, its only the secular calendars that matter. Every year to date we have had steak pie, and I love it. Always far too big, so big portions. But mother in law, Scots to her navel, doesnt like it, so we have to buy fish for her. This year we decided on Gammon, we can all eat the same. She complained wew had broken with tradition. Our reply, tis Gammon or nothing else. She is coming to lunch, and I,m faced by a Kg3 gammon.
Christmas is a much lesser feast, and traditional lunch goes out of the window, so daughter can get up late and cook the meal evetually. Had to ask to listen to Our Queen.

Never ask for mince pies , you will get meat pies. You must ask for mince meat pies, then you get mince pies.

But when all is back to normal, they are a bonny bunch.

Fr John

Posted by: Fr John E. Harris-White on Thursday, 31 December 2009 at 4:22pm GMT

My father (Glaswegian Celtic supporter) with his raven black, glossy (Brylcreem)hair and swarthy complexion was always the one to "first foot" our neighbours on January 1st - bearing a lump of coal I remember ...... was that his own addition?

Posted by: Martin Reynolds on Thursday, 31 December 2009 at 5:14pm GMT

Yes, the tallest darkest person should cross the threshold first. It is a compliment to be asked to do so - they bring in luck for the whole year. Coal is traditional, though few do it now. However, few wil go empty handed to a house for the first visit of the new year. 'A wee minding' or hansel is the correct thing. Needs only be something simple.

My tongue-in-cheek point is of course that it is a deeply religious festival, celebrating what is in effect a sacrament close to baptism and to penitence.

Posted by: Rosemary Hannah on Thursday, 31 December 2009 at 5:38pm GMT

Fascinating article, Rosemary, thank you! A light-hearted approach to what is very serious to many.

Posted by: trish lindsay on Friday, 1 January 2010 at 11:45am GMT

One thing about your refreshing article, Rosemary on the place of Hogmanay in Scottish tradition; how come you are a Scot - "partially by birth and partially by adoption"? Now which part of you was born there, and which part became Scottish by adoption? In other words: does haggis nourish the brain or the body?

Only joking, Rosemary. Have a Guid Noo Year!

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Friday, 1 January 2010 at 10:30pm GMT

Martyn - the carrying of a piece of coal was quite widespread. In the North East when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s it was tradition that first-footing was done by the tallest male, equipped with a piece of coal and a piece of silver; he brought greetings of peace to the household and greeted the occasion with a glass of malt.

When I reached the height necessary I found myself freezing in the street at midnight, waiting for Big Ben and nodding amiably to all the neighbouring first-footers on identical missions.

My father's addition (I think it was his own invention) was that before the greeting, his first words of the New Year had to be 'Rabbits and Alligators'. I've now taken to doing this with absolutely no inkling of why it should be so. There's a sermon in there somewhere, I think ...

Posted by: Rev Jonathan Jennings on Saturday, 2 January 2010 at 9:25am GMT

My mother was an ex-pat Scot, and I was brought up with a strong sense of my Scots heritage - therefore I went to St Andrews Uni and stayed on having married a Scot, and rearing five children in Scotland.

AFIK one should say 'RABBIT' at the start of every month, and the correct response is 'hare'. I have kn idea why. the hare, of course, lives in the moon ......

Posted by: Rosemary Hannah on Saturday, 2 January 2010 at 3:05pm GMT

The carrying in of the lump of coal is widespread in Northern Ireland as well, as befits our hybrid culture where New Year's Eve is a bigger event than in England but sits as a secular counterpoise to Christmas rather than eclipsing it as with our cousins across the North Channel. We also do the heavy drinking part pretty well.

Odd thoughts this year, when my 32nd New Year's Eve on this planet was the first spent away from home, in that rather strange country immediately to the southwest...

Posted by: Gerry Lynch on Sunday, 3 January 2010 at 2:35am GMT
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