The secret history of the biggest party of the year

Hogmanay is so important to Scotland. It is part of our national identity."
Hogmanay is so important to Scotland. It is part of our national identity."
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So much more than Auld Lang Syne and a sloppy kiss at midnight: we examine the fascinating history of the best party of the year.

When it comes to ringing in the New Year, Scotland has the rest of the world beat. They’ve celebrated Hogmanay for centuries, and now have festivities so finely tuned it brings £40 million to the country’s economy annually.

More than 80,000 people visit Edinburgh’s celebrations every year, travelling from around the world to experience the torchlight procession, show stopping fireworks, and a street party of epic proportion.

But what is it about the annual celebration of the Winter Solstice – a tradition that harks back to the Viking invasion - that means it resonates with so many people, even today?

“Scottish people are naturally warm and welcoming. We love welcoming people, be they local or from abroad, to this spectacular city to celebrate with us.” said Tristan Nesbitt, general manager at Sheraton Grand Hotel, in Festival Square, Edinburgh.

“Hogmanay is so important to Scotland. It is part of our national identity: no one celebrates New Year like us! And Edinburgh is of the best place in the world to be when the clock strikes midnight.

“It’s also such an important part of our tourist industry, which now employs 217,000 people in the city. Along with the festival, it’s what Edinburgh is known for, and it’s so exciting to be part of that.”

Most of the traditional Hogmanay celebrations are thought to have been introduced to Scotland by the Vikings, who invaded the country in the eighth and ninth centuries.

The celebration, which was originally as means to mark the arrival of the shortest day, or Winter Solstice, has grown into a three-day party.

It was during the Protestant Reformation, which led to Christmas being branded a Catholic feast and banned, that the New Year celebrations took on a greater importance.

Ben Johnson, of Historic UK, explained: “It may surprise people that Christmas was not celebrated as a festival and virtually banned in Scotland for around 400 years from the end of the 17th century to the 1950s.

“Right up until the 1950s, many Scots worked over Christmas and celebrated the Winter Solstice holiday at New Year, when friends and family would gather for a party and to exchange presents.”

Much of what we have come to know and love about Hogmanay is shrouded in mystery, and that includes how it got its name. Some say the word originates from the Gaelic oge maiden, meaning “new morning”, while others insist it comes from the Anglo Saxon for “holy month”: monath, and there are countless other theories.

First footing, a Scottish tradition, means it is considered lucky for a dark-haired man to be the first person to step foot into your house after midnight on New Year’s Eve. It’s thought this tradition dates back to after the Viking invasions, when it was certainly unlucky to find a fair-haired man trying to get into your home. It’s customary for that dark-haired man to arrive with coal, shortbread, salt and whiskey, and positively rude to arrive empty handed.

“It all helps form part of Scotland’s cultural legacy of ancient customs and traditions that surround the pagan festival of Hogmanay,” said Ben.

Nowadays, Hogmanay is known for the wild street party on Princes Street: albeit a rather messy, and somewhat bracing bash, which necessitates braving the wilds of winter and some rather boisterous revellers. For an altogether more civilised affair, the Sheraton Grand Hotel and Spa on Festival Square is throwing an inaugural Edinburgh Hogmannay Ball – Pop Goes Prohibition.

Styled in the manner of the 1920s (think Jay Gatsby and his crew), it’s designed to be an opulent affair from start to finish. A grand champagne reception, followed by tasting from Moet and Chandon, will precede a lavish five-course meal. A live jazz band will start things off before a modern ceilidh and a DJ take over. Guests will also have a front-row view of the spectacular fireworks over the castle at midnight from Festival Square, and there’s a chance to win a grand prize in a raffle. For more information, or to book, visit Pop Goes Prohibition.