What is Hogmanay?

And why did January 1st become New Year’s Day?

Fireworks at Edinburgh Castle. Photo by Chris Flexen on Unsplash

Hogmanay is the word used to describe the very distinctive Scottish celebration of New Years’s Eve. This includes the singing of Auld Lang Syne while linking arms — a tradition has spread across the world.

Other famous customs include ‘first-footing’ — the welcoming the first visitor to the house after midnight. First footers are encouraged to carry a lump of coal and gifts of whisky and shortbread.

Luck-bringing tall dark strangers only, please. And next available date is January 1st, 2023. First footers are not advised to cold-call during the pandemic. Just drop your gifts down at the front entrance — local Amazon delivery staff will advise

Word Origin

There are a number of not entirely convincing theories as to the origin of the word Hogmanay:

  • Hoggo-nott was a Scandinavian word for the shortest day. Evidently they needed work on their calendars as this is the 21st December.
  • The Flemish phrase hoog min dag means “great love day”. This has not always apparent in the fiery eyes of dedicated revelers.
  • The Gaelic for “new morning” is oge maiden.
  • Homme est né is French for “Man is born”.

When did January 1st become New Year’s Day?

Has not always been New Year’s Day

Until the Romans, there was no generally accepted date when the old year ended and the new one began. January was first declared the beginning of the year by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE. January derives from the Janus — the God whose two faces look back into the past and forward into the future

Like many Pagan holidays (e.g. Christmas/Midwinter Festival) it slowly became incorporated into the Christian calendar. From a Christian perspective , however, the 12th Day of Christmas (January 6) would have been a more logical transformation point from old into new.

Throughout the medieval period there was sporadic resistance to what was generally thought to be an alien, pagan anniversary.

Calendar clash
A desire to standardise calendars eventually made New Year’s Day the official beginning of the year. In 1066 William the Conqueror declared that January 1st a holiday and Europe would ultimately split on this question around the Catholic/Protestant faultline. Leading Team Rome, Pope Gregory XIII decided to play hardball with those not inclined to join the One True Faith. During the 1578 New Year’s Day celebration he decreed:

that all Roman Jews, under pain of death, must listen attentively to the compulsory Catholic conversion sermon given in Roman synagogues after Friday night services.

And a Happy New Year to you, too, Holy Father.

The Protestant societies of northern Europe refused to accept Gregory’s decree, officially confirmed in 1582. They stuck doggedly with March 1st as their official start of the year until the late Eighteenth Century.

So New Year’s Day does not have a glorious history. It an artificially imposed holiday, often used as a pretext for spot of forced religious conversion. Not exactly romcom territory — New Year’s Eve has pretty much cornered that market in any case with The Apartment, When Harry Met Sally etc.

Nor has it produced many good tunes to compare with What are you doing New Year’s Eve? Bon Jovi and U2 both had a go but neither effort is advised for those with those nursing hangovers. Taylor Swift’s New Year’s Day is an honourable exception but even that has a mournful feel: hold onto the memories/they will hold onto you.

Generally, a day with glitter on the floor as Taylor memorably describes it.



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