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Hogmanay and the First Foot

It’s the Sixth Day of Twelvetide, and tonight we welcome in the Gregorian New Year of 2013! This is traditionally a night of festivity and merrymaking. Many religious communities celebrate this as “Watch Night.” Gathering before midnight, they watch the old year pass and the new one begin, giving thanks and asking for good favor in the next 365 days.


The ancient Egyptians held a celebration along the Nile Delta at the start of the New Year. Lasting for twenty-four hours, the festivities included offerings to the gods, most likely asking that the Nile behave itself and the crops flourish in the coming year. Shrines and offerings were placed on ceremonial barges and towed down the river to Luxor, while people lined the Nile’s banks to play homage.


Ding, Ding! Bells o’ the Barony!

Ding! Ding! Hogmanay harmony!

Naebody greets for the year that’s away.

~W.D. Cocker, “The Auld Year”


In Scotland, New Year’s celebrations—known as Hogmanay—are often more bold than those of Christmas and tend to spill out of homes and into the street.


The term Hogmanay may be a corruption of au gui menez, “lead to the mistletoe,” and suggests a Druidic history for the feasting, as Britain’s Druidic priests were said to cut the sacred mistletoe around the Winter Solstice. Another source (John Matthews' The Winter Solstice) suggests the term may have come from an old Celtic song that began oge midne, “new morning” (188). In any case, the term Hogmanay is synonymous with the New Year and with a blowout party, Scottish style!


In some traditions, people clean their homes on the New Year, with the idea being to purify the surroundings and set life in order so that the New Year may begin fresh. Another pre-Hogmanay convention suggests that all work be completed before the New Year in order that the celebration can be properly observed and all energy focused on seeing the New Year in properly.


Juniper played a significant role in the ancient folkways associated with the New Year. Sprigs were soaked in water and the water drank (for internal purification) or used as a "sprinkle" to cleanse the rooms throughout one's home. The juniper sprigs were then dried slightly and burned as a smudge, being carried from room to room as a purifying fumigant.


Another well-known Scottish New Year tradition is that of “first footing.” It's said that the first visitor to the home in the New Year portends the home’s luck for the following year. To have a dark-haired man visit is said to bring the best luck.


A more elaborate version of first footing requires that all lights in the house be put out at midnight, except for a single candle flame. A family member is sent outside with the flame, and must prevent it from going out. At midnight, the person knocks on the door and is welcomed in by everyone within the house. The “guest” then goes around the house and uses the candle to ceremonially relight the home. It's easy to see the connections between this ritual and the 'return of light' themes common to Solstice celebrations.


In another variation, the “first foot” brings along a lump of coal for good luck. Scottish tradition also requires the “foot” to bring a bottle of alcohol, usually Scotch whisky. Which, by the way, is the traditional beverage with which to toast the New Year, along with the singing of the Scottish Aulde Lang Syne: sipping champagne at New Year’s Eve is a modern twist on that tradition. Other customary gifts include shortbread, fruitcake, and black bun, a dark, rich fruit cake enclosed in pastry.


Once the “first foot” has entered and been welcomed, the festivities begin, with singing, dancing, and much food and drink. Eggnog is traditionally served at this time. Happy merrymaking!


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Susan “Moonwriter” Pesznecker is a writer, college English teacher, and hearth Pagan/Druid living in northwestern Oregon. Her magickal roots include Pictish Scot and eastern European medicine traditions. Sue holds a Masters degree in nonfiction writing and loves to read, stargaze, camp with her wonder poodle, and play in her biodynamic garden. She’s co-founder of the Druid Grove of Two Coasts and the Ars Viarum Magicarum Magical Conservatory (school of magic). Sue has authored Crafting Magick with Pen and Ink and The Magickal Retreat (Llewellyn, 2009-2012) and regularly contributes to the Llewellyn Annuals. Visit her at on Facebook.


  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Monday, 31 December 2012

    I'm married to a full blooded Scot, and learned the First Foot rule from my mother-in-law Susun. (RIP). From the stories I heard from her, back-in-the-day the revelers wandered all over town First-Footing each other in turn, dropping folks off at their respective houses til the very wee hours. We still buy a bottle of high-quality Scotch for the night's toast in honor of this custom and always try to find a neighbor to exchange First Foots with!

  • Susan “Moonwriter” Pesznecker
    Susan “Moonwriter” Pesznecker Monday, 31 December 2012

    That's fabulous, Anne! One year, we tried to stage a first foot-- but my dog beat everyone else across the threshold. At least he (the dog) had black hair....

  • Byron Ballard
    Byron Ballard Monday, 31 December 2012

    At the turn of the millennia, we had the perfect First Footer--a handsome, dark-haired man bringing alcohol and chocolate. I've felt lucky ever since! Thanks for this fun article.

  • Susan “Moonwriter” Pesznecker
    Susan “Moonwriter” Pesznecker Monday, 31 December 2012

    Thanks for sharing.... :D

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