What is Hogmanay?

happy new year

A quick guide to celebrating New Year Scottish style

It’s the end of the year so time to celebrate and Scotland celebrates it with so much oomph that an extra day off is needed to recuperate (2nd January is a national holiday)!  So what is Hogmanay and how is it celebrated?

happy new year

What is Hogmanay?

Hogmanay is what we Scottish call our New Year’s Eve celebrations.  Celebrated at the end of each year on 31st December and lasting long into 1st January.   It’s thought that the word comes from a corruption of Greek wording for Holy Month agía míne or French hoguinané meaning a gift given at New Year.

The winter solstice was a big celebration in Norse communities with elements of Gaelic Samhain celebrations and add to this a bit of Yule and you get a big winter celebration.

Why Hogmanay was bigger than Christmas in Scotland

Thanks to the Protestant Reformation, Christmas was effectively banned for 400 years, and Christmas Day didn’t even become a public holiday in Scotland until 1958 as it was seen as a bit too Catholic for Protestant Scotland! Boxing Day also didn’t become a recognised holiday until 1974!

Hogmanay Customs

Hogmanay starts on New Year’s Eve but continues throughout New Year’s Day with recuperation on 2nd January, which is also a public holiday in Scotland. Hurrah.


There are many customs, both national and local. First-footing is a widespread one. The first person to cross the threshold of a friend or neighbour should bring a gift such as shortbread, whisky and traditionally coal (would a top-up for the electricity count nowadays?) The first-foot is supposed to set the luck for the rest of the year. Traditionally, tall, dark-haired men are preferred as the first-foot. For us Fred the cat is sent out the door to be the first in as he’s dark and handsome!

Stonehaven fireballs 2003
Photo from Wikipedia

Fire ceremonies

Stonehaven has a fireball ceremony which involves local people making up “balls” of chicken wire filled with old newspaper, sticks, rags etc attached to a metal chain. As the Old Town House bell sounds to mark the new year, the balls are set alight and the swingers set off along the High Street from the Mercat Cross to the Cannon and back, swinging the burning balls around their heads as they go. At the end of the ceremony, any fireballs that are still burning are cast into the harbour.

Singing Auld Lang Syne

There’s a Hogmanay custom of singing “Auld Lang Syne“, a poem written in Scots by Robert Burns.  It does seem to be more of an organised party type song as you stand in a circle and hold hands, but then cross them for the final verse (that thing Donald Trump can’t get his head around), or you could just sit on your couch and sing along with the TV when it undoubtedly appears.

Edinburgh’s famed festivities

Edinburgh’s Hogmanay is known throughout the world, with a torchlight parade, a concert and the yearly discussion about the commercialisation of Hogmanay.   We haven’t actually been as it looks a bit too busy for us so we can’t comment on what it is like.

Chris Watt Photography from Wikipedia

A dip into the ocean

‘Loony Dook’  coming from the words lunatic and dook which means dip.  You certainly would be a loony to take part, but it’s all in good fun.  Hungover attendees hurl themselves into the freezing water at South Queensferry, lots raise money for charity in the process.  We have also attended the ‘Nieuwjaarsduik’ at Scheveningen beside the Hague in the Netherlands who do a similar thing.

How to celebrate Hogmanay properly?

There’s no right way or wrong way to celebrate Hogmanay. Most folks who don’t have an organised event to go to simply stay in and watch Scottish TV programmes The Steamie and Only an Excuse (it used to be good), or for a more musical night Jools’ Annual Hootenanny.

Do what you want but involve friends, food and alcohol and you’ll smash it.  Toast in the new year with a whisky and have a steak pie ready for your New Years Day dinner.  Oh, and don’t forget the Irn Bru for the hangover.

Happy New Year!

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I am Emma and with my husband Mark write Foodie Explorers, which is a food and travel website.

I am a member of the Guild of Food Writers and British Guild of Travel Writers.

We have a wide range of judging experience covering products, hotels and have judged, for example, for Great Taste Awards and Scottish Baker of the Year.

Along the way Mark gained WSET Level 2 in Wine and I have WSET Level 2 in Spirits as well as picking up an award with The Scotsman Food and Drink Awards.    

Usually I can be found sleeping beside a cat.

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