It’s a strange word, and its origins remain a mystery. The Scottish term for New Year’s is very old, first recorded in a 15th century document as “Hagnonayse” and in common use in Scotland by 1600. No one knows what the word means, even the Scots. It may derive from the French, possibly from aguilleneuf or from hoguignane, which in Northern (Norman) French meant gift or new year’s gift. Others think Hogmanay derives from the Old Saxon “Haleg monath” for “holy month.” (The Scots and French had an Auld Alliance, so that's a possible origin … but knowing how the medieval Scots felt about the Saxons, I wouldn't put my money on that one.)
It could stem from the Gaelic oiche mhadainn or og mhadainn (good morning or new morning). When said aloud, it's not far from "hogmanay." Or it could have come from the Vikings, whose influence was so strong in Scotland – the Scots used the Norse-derived “Yule” for the season rather than “Christmas.” The Old Norse phrase “hoggo-nott” refers to the winter solstice celebration at Yule. In Scotland, the December solstice is more closely associated with the New Year than Christmas Day.
Hogmanay and New Year's was the big end-of-year thing in Scotland; for hundreds of years, Christmas was not celebrated in Scotland, having been banned by the Protestants in the 16th century. Even in the 20th century, shops and businesses were open in many parts of Scotland, although Scottish Catholics continued to observe Christmas. (This lack of Christmasy sentiment in Scotland is a challenge when attempting to write Scottish historical Christmas stories!).
Old Hogmanay customs usually involved fire, noisemaking and wild celebrations to purify the old year's energies and scare off evil spirits. Young Scottish men would dress as “guisers” and run through villages wearing animal skins and banging on drums and kettles and blowing horns. Yule in Scotland went on for days with revelry, dances, and gift-giving. Twelfth Night, the end of the Yuletide, was often enthusiastically celebrated in Scottish households, with a king and a queen determined by finding beans hidden in a cake.
The Hogmanay tradition of the First Footer is probably best known: the first person to set foot in the house after the chime of midnight can bring luck, good or bad, to the household. A handsome young dark-haired man was most fortunate, with redheads and blonds the least lucky – a throwback to the threat of Viking invaders.
“Auld Lang Syne” comes to the world from the Scots, and no New Year’s Eve celebration is complete without it. Robert Burns patched the best known version together from an old melody and traditional verses, adding a couple of new verses of his own.
Here's a version sung by Dougie MacLean, who this year sang "Auld Lang Syne" to close the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, streamed to possibly a billion people in 71 countries!
Bliadhna Mhath Ur! A Guid New Year! May 2015 be kind to each of you!
P.S. If you'd like to read a Hogmanay novella, try my story "The Snow Rose," currently available in the e-book anthology Christmas Roses, with Mary Jo Putney and Pat Rice!