9 Festive Facts about Hogmanay, Scotland’s New Year’s Celebration

Scotland knows how to ring in the New Year.
Scotland knows how to ring in the New Year. / georgeclerk/E+/Getty Images

Celebrating the New Year is a big deal in Scotland: The Scots participate in globally observed traditions, like fireworks displays and midnight kisses, but also add a few of their own unique customs to the mix. In Scotland, New Year’s Eve is called Hogmanay (pronounced hog-muh-nay), and the celebration keeps going into New Year’s Day and beyond. Read on to learn some festive facts about Hogmanay.

1. Hogmanay is so celebrated in Scotland because Christmas was canceled for almost 400 years.

Prior to 1560, Christmas in Scotland had a long history of being celebrated. That changed with the arrival of the Reformation, which saw the spread of Presbyterianism and the rejection of Catholicism—and by extension, Christmas. In 1640, celebrating the December 25 holiday was officially banned by an Act of Parliament.

The story is similar in England. But while those south of the border soon brought the holiday back—and in years to come, would be decorating Christmas trees and sending creepy cards—north of the border, the Church of Scotland held firm against Christmas. While the ban was technically lifted in Scotland in 1712, it wasn’t until 1958 that Christmas Day was officially made a public holiday and began to be properly celebrated. During the nearly 400 years without Christmas, the Scots instead made Hogmanay their main festive event in winter.

2. The New Year warrants two public holidays in Scotland.

While England, Wales, and Northern Ireland get January 1 off work as a public holiday, Scotland gets both January 1 and 2. Jokes may abound about Scots needing two full days to recover from their Hogmanay hangovers, but there is more than a seed of truth in the humor. January 2 was typically taken as a day off work to rest after the celebrations, so when public holidays were regulated by the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971, January 2 was made an official holiday in Scotland to adhere to the custom.

3. The first person to enter a household on January 1 is known as the “first footer.”

Ronald Shiner, Joan Tetzel
British comedian Ronald Shiner (1903–1966) carries out the Scottish Hogmanay tradition of first-foot with actress Joan Tetzel (1921–1977). / Reg Speller/GettyImages

These days, first footing is not as commonly practiced as it once was, but those who still observe the tradition arrive after the bells ring at midnight with gifts, such as a coin for prosperity, a lump of coal for warmth, and whisky for a wee dram (a small drink). There is also a superstition that the first footer should be a dark-haired man for good luck; it’s thought that this is tied to the Viking invasion of Scotland, when the arrival of a fair-haired stranger was often a sign of trouble.

4. The etymology of the word Hogmanay is unclear.

Although no one knows for sure where the Scots word for New Year’s Eve comes from, there are a number of theories. Dr. Donna Heddle, the director of the Centre for Nordic Studies at Orkney and Shetland College UHI, believes that “the most likely source seems to be French. In Normandy presents given at Hogmanay were hoguignetes.” This is supported by Hogmanay spreading in Scotland after Mary, Queen of Scots returned from France in 1561. Heddle explains that it may also have roots in the Anglo-Saxon phrase haleg monath, which means “holy month;” the Scandinavian hoggo-nott, a term used for “yule;” or the French word hoginane, meaning “gala day.”

5. The Scottish custom of singing “Auld Lang Syne” at New Year has become a global tradition.

“Auld Lang Syne,” which translates to “for old time’s sake,” is often attributed to the Scots poet Robert Burns, but the song has a slightly more complicated history. Here’s the quick version: Burns himself said, “I took it down from an old man.” But historians generally believe that he added his own spin when he wrote the words down in 1788. The iconic melody was added by music publisher George Thompson in 1799 and it soon became customary to sing the song at Hogmanay. It became the worldwide anthem of New Year after bandleader Guy Lombardo and his band played it during a 1929 New Year’s Eve broadcast.

6. Edinburgh’s Hogmanay Street Party is one of the biggest New Year’s Eve celebrations in the world.

Edinburgh’s Hogmanay is not only the biggest New Year’s Eve celebrations in Scotland, but also one of the biggest in the world. Since 1993 the official street party has been held on Princes Street, below Edinburgh Castle. The event features live music and a fireworks display from the castle ramparts at midnight.

The street party held December 31, 1996, reportedly drew crowds of around 300,000 people, which raised safety concerns and led to the following year’s party being ticketed and numbers being restricted to 180,000.

7. The town of Stonehaven celebrates with a fireball ceremony.

Stonehaven’s Hogmanay centers around a fireball ceremony, which sees a procession of around 40 people walk down the main street swinging huge flaming balls above their heads. The fireballs are made of a wire mesh shell that is filled with flammable materials like cardboard and newspaper. Crowds line the street in the hours leading up to midnight, and when the clock strikes 12, a pipe band leads the procession through the town down to the harbor, where the fireballs are thrown into the sea—they’re later recovered for use the next year.

8. Scots traditionally eat steak pie on New Year’s Day.

No one knows exactly why it became a tradition to eat steak pie on the first day of the year. The most common theory is that in the years before the day was taken off as a holiday, families were too busy working to cook, so they would buy a steak pie from the butcher.

9. The Loony Dook sees people take a dip into the freezing sea on New Year’s Day.

The Loony Dook—loony being short for “lunatic” and dook being the Scots word for “dip”—involves plunging into the icy waters of the Firth of Forth, north of Edinburgh, often in a fun costume. The first Loony Dook took place in 1987, after a man named Jim Kilcullen, while at a bar with a friend, suggested “Ach, let’s jump in the Forth on New Year’s Day, maybe it’ll clear the hangovers!” His friend Andy Kerr named it the Loony Dook and what started as a small tradition between friends then grew into an official event with around 1000 people braving the Dook each year.

Although the Loony Dook has been absent from Edinburgh Hogmanay’s official schedule for the past few years—due to Covid restrictions and funding challenges—loonies can still participate unofficially. There are also unofficial New Year’s Day dooks that take place in other freezing bodies of water across the country.