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first foot

First feet, black buns, and hansels: the language of Scottish New Year’s traditions

Get up, goodwife, and shake your feathers,
And dinna think that we are beggars;
For we are bairns come out to play,
Get up and gie’s our hogmanay

My grandma taught me this ditty longer ago than I care to remember, and it served as my first introduction to the word Hogmanay. Nowadays, many people are familiar with it as meaning ‘New Year’s Eve’, but as the above shows, it does have another meaning. Originally, it meant a new year’s gift for children or the demand for it, usually of fruit, bread, or oatcakes. I don’t remember ever receiving a gift when learning this poem, but it has stuck with me ever since.

The word Hogmanay has been with us for a long time – the OED’s first citation, in this gift sense,  is from 1443, with the sense ‘the last day of the year’ following in c1680. It probably comes from the Old French word aguillanneuf, meaning last day of the year. Although essentially a word used mostly in Scotland, in recent years, notably with the surge in popularity of Edinburgh as a place to spend it, its reach has spread over the border.

In the UK, there are many traditions associated with saying goodbye to the old year and the seeing in of the new.  For me, that involves nothing more glamorous that staying up for the bells, and then trying to ensure that our first-foot ticks all of the boxes demanded by tradition/superstition (delete as applicable) –  male, dark-haired, and perhaps carrying some black bun or a lump of coal. All of these elements are supposed to bring good luck and prosperity for the coming year. For those who are unfamiliar with it, a ‘first-foot’ is the first person who enters your home once the new year has been heralded in. It is not unknown for this to be planned in advance, so as to ensure that you don’t get the year off on the wrong foot (pun intended) by having, for example, a short blonde female knocking on the door at 00:01. Naturally, such guests would be more than welcome shortly afterwards.

Like Hogmanay, the tradition of first-footing is also particularly associated with Scotland, although not exclusively so. Manx English has its own word for this first person over the threshold – quaaltagh –  dating back to the mid nineteenth century. Dark-haired males also seem to be the quaaltagh of choice.

A hansel is often given at New Year, as a token of good luck. This is not exclusive to New Year, but what better time to bestow good luck than when observing the mother of all New Year traditions – the New Year’s resolution. If you are anything like me, you’ll need all the luck you can get.

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